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Amendment Of The 1980 Act: Levying, Revision And Application Of Tolls

Volume 406: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2003

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4.44 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 3, line 6, leave out 'November 1999' and insert 'November 2003'.

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 28, in page 3, line 15, leave out '1999' and insert '2003'.

No. 22, in page 5, line 31, after 'every', insert 'fifth'.

No. 23, in page 5, line 38, leave out '12 months and insert: 'five years'.

No. 35, in page 5, line 47, leave out from the first 'percentage' until the end of line 3 on page 6 and insert—

'as the Retail Price Index for the base month minus X where X is a percentage to be decided by the Secretary of State on the making of every third order to ensure the efficient and cost-effective management of the tunnels after sufficient provision has been made for the purposes mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (3) above, and for which purpose the Authority shall submit to the Secretary of State accounts for the tunnels for the three years preceding the making of the order and outline its objectives in accordance with paragraph (e) of subsection (3) above.'.
No. 24, in page 6, line 2, leave out 'retail prices index for the month of November' and insert—

'mean average of the retail price indices for the months of November in the five years.'.
No. 25, in page 6, line 36, at end insert—

'(c) all or any of the tolls fixed by or by virtue of this Act should be increased prior to 5 years having elapsed since the making of the previous order.'.
No. 18, in page 8, line 13, at end insert—

'(1A) The Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority may freeze toll prices when the provisions of subsection 91(3)(e) have been met and the revenue needs of (a), (b), (c) and (d) can be met without an increase in the toll. If appropriate, tolls shall temporarily cease to be demanded where the revenue needs of (a), (b), (c) and (d) can be met without revenue from such tolls.'.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from earlier debates on the Bill, that I am not its greatest fan. In its current form, it would remove from the people of Merseyside the decades-old promise that the tunnel debt would be paid off and tolls reduced over a period of time. It would allow the Merseyside passenger transport authority to increase tunnel tolls by the rate of inflation whether or not it had demonstrated the need to do so or introduced efficiencies. It would allow the MPTA to use tunnel profits to support other transport projects from tunnel receipts. The one aspect of the Bill to which I have no objection whatsoever provides for the soundproofing of certain dwellings around the Kingsway tunnel, which I very much support.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there must be a much clearer definition of which houses will be included in any sound insulation improvements in the Bill and which would be excluded?

The hon. Gentleman has a detailed knowledge of the Bill's provisions, and I defer to him on that point.

That is something that we will wish to debate. However, there is a black cloud hanging over our proceedings. When we were going through the Lobby to vote on an earlier motion today, the Whips told Labour Members that everyone could go home except the payroll vote, which suggests that although we are going to have a debate and give the Bill serious consideration, other Members may need to be brought in later. I just hope that the payroll vote is watching my hon. Friend on television and can experience his eloquence.

Order. This does not have anything to do with the amendments before the House.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Some of the amendments bring us up to date and recognise that the Bill has been around for a long time. One of them requires the tolls to be increased every five years, rather than every year, as the Bill proposes. Another one includes a proposal to increase efficiency. They result from the fact that, in my view at least, Merseytravel is a substantially unaccountable body with a propensity to spend money.

I obviously do not want to guess what my hon. Friend will say when he introduces his amendments. My objections have a much narrower focus than his, but I am intrigued by his arguments about efficiency. Will he deal with that more effectively and at greater length in his introductory remarks?

I intend to do so briefly but in some detail, as my proposed formula is quite complex.

A few seconds ago, the hon. Gentleman said that Merseytravel was a substantially unaccountable body. Is he not aware that it is the only body left over from Merseyside county council that is full of elected members?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall deal with that in detail later.

For the record, I thought that Liverpool city council, Wirral council and every other council was directly elected. We are talking about a body with indirectly elected representatives, but there is a galaxy of elected bodies in Merseyside.

Order. May I remind the House that this is about the question of tolls and inflationary increases? We would make better progress and better use of the time available if we remained strictly within the terms of the amendments.

I hope to demonstrate that there is no need to raise tolls every year—hence one of the amendments—if, indeed, at all.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the title of this group of amendments suggests, we are discussing what Mr. Deputy Speaker just referred to—inflationary increases, which will not be good for Merseyside?

That is parliamentary shorthand. We are covering wider matters than that.

The formula that has been mentioned, retail prices index minus X, would bring increased efficiency to the operation of Merseytravel. The existing legislation requires the Merseyside passenger transport authority and the Secretary of State to take into account the effect of revising any tolls. The provisions enable and require the authority and the Secretary of State to take into account any revision on the basis of financial, transport or social considerations.

Those considerations are wide and would include the impact of the revision on travel patterns and on local businesses, for example. They are of considerable significance, as an increase in tolls is likely to deter users from using the tunnel concerned and cause them to use other routes. Increased tolls are likely to increase the operating costs of, and may affect the viability of, local businesses. They will certainly deter investment in Merseyside. Although the effect of the diversion to other routes such as the Runcorn bridge is of necessity limited, as it would entail a 50-mile round journey, such diversion as does occur is likely to exacerbate existing congestion and safety problems.

As I read the Bill, once the provision is removed, Merseytravel would effectively be accountable to no one. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1985 specifies that the MPTA should comprise two members from Knowsley district council, six from Liverpool, two from St. Helen's, four from Sefton and four from The Wirral. That is it. There is no mention of expertise, experience or suitability, no requirement for a mix of management, finance and accounting skills, and no direct representation for trade unions or users. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the competence of Merseyside councillors; far from it. I am sure that they are hardworking and thoroughly capable. Certainly, those whom I know are. I am not criticising specific people, merely the failings of the system that leads to their appointment to the MPTA.

In effect, posts are allocated as between the police authority, the passenger transport authority and other authorities. As I said on Second Reading, people are given posts on the principle of Buggins' turn. That was taken by some as being offensive, but what I mean is that allocation is on a random basis, rather than on the basis of skills. One might argue that the councillors can rely on those skills from the executive, but if that were the case, it would effectively be the executive that ran Merseytravel. If there is no counterbalance on the authority, it surely follows that the organisation is run by an executive that has even less accountability or democratic mandate.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I fail to see the relevance of my hon. Friend's remarks to the amendments. I should appreciate your advice.

I am listening carefully. As I have had to intervene from the Chair on a couple of occasions already, I am trying to give a little leeway to the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), but I am listening to what he is saying, and if I am not satisfied very shortly that what he is saying is relevant to the terms of his amendments, I shall intervene to say so.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try to stick by your guidance. I am attempting to demonstrate, among other things, that there is no need for the rises, certainly not on an annual basis, and that there is no accountability. We need to build in efficiency mechanisms and a five-year period, because there is no direct accountability.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the rises are not necessary even in terms of internal consistency on the part of Merseytravel, as the tunnels already break even and cover their own costs?

As I shall seek to demonstrate later, the tunnels not only break even, but make a fair margin of profit. That is another argument for restricting ourselves to a five-year review and to RPI minus X, and for greater accountability on the part of the authority. The general public have a right to demand that large sums such as those going into the authority—there is a budget of £80 million a year—are properly accounted for. If the public are to face year-on-year increases simply because the cost of living has increased, there will be a need to demonstrate that some effiencies have been achieved in the operation of the organisation.

I have a question that my hon. Friend may explore further later. Is he saying that there is a hidden profit in the tunnels, that it is not demonstrated as such and that some of the so-called debt is a paper exercise? Is that the point that he is making? If so, I encourage him to develop it later.

I should certainly like to develop that point later, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall now move quickly through the points that I want to make, in view of your guidance.

It is true that Merseytravel consults regularly, but the problem is that it does not always take account of the results of that consultation. Under the Bill, it has basically unfettered powers to pursue its own ends, more or less irrespective of the strength of its case. It is obliged to consult in respect of the local transport plan, but not necessarily to take heed of the consultation. While it may appear that there is an elected mandate, that is not so in reality. I think that there is a substantial democratic deficit.

Does my hon. Friend apply the same argument about accountability to the other residuary bodies? Does he feel the same way about the waste disposal, fire and police authorities? Does he fully understand the history of how those bodies were established with regard to the abolition of the county council in the first place?

By and large, I take the same view about those bodies, but they are not the subject of this debate. I am sure that my hon. Friend will enlighten me about that issue outside the confines of the Chamber.

It is a maxim that there should be no taxation without representation, and it applies particularly in this context.

As a former member of Merseyside county council, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) referred, I can say that one great difference was that we had a forum of people who could be consulted whenever there was a policy change, including in relation to the Mersey tunnels toll increases. The Bill contains no suggestion about such a body, but there is tremendous opposition to it on Merseyside from business interests and trade unions.

While my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) was right in an historical sense, will my hon. Friend confirm that the trade unions, with the possible exception of the self-appointed Wirral trades council, are now supportive of the Bill? At least, they did not object or continue their objections when it was considered in Committee, and the same is true of all the other objecting bodies.

That is a matter of record, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure 'whether withdrawing objections is the same as giving support, but it is certainly a fact that the objections were withdrawn, as my hon. Friend said.

In brief, we should not have a system of taxation without representation—that is one of the cornerstones of our system—but here we have a situation in which taxation will be applied by people who cannot be voted out by those who are being taxed. Passenger transport authorities are, by their nature, political animals, yet they do not have the direct franchise given by the electors to the district council that elects their members. Although the authority comprises councillors who have been directly elected to represent a borough ward, the electorate have no control over who sits on it, and they cannot be removed. The PTA's responsibilities are probably little understood by those whose council taxes contribute a greater part of its revenue.

5 pm

Order. The hon. Gentleman drafted the amendments that we are discussing, so he should know better than anyone that he is now moving beyond their scope.

Order. I honestly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he should not be touting for business; he should get on with the prosecution of the case for the amendments.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you guide me on that ruling? I am genuinely puzzled by it. I, too, tabled amendments in this group, and, like my hon. Friend, I am worried that if we are not successful in our amendments we will give a non-elected body the power to tax. That is the case that he was putting. I am worried by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I want to put a similar case, should I manage to catch your eye.

Order. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that his remarks about accountability must be very closely related to the particular content of the amendments, which concern a mechanism by which tolls may or may not be increased. The more general arguments to which some of the speeches and interventions have so far related are matters that are encompassed by the Bill, but not necessarily by the amendments that the hon. Member for Wirral, South has brought to our attention.

In the light of your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall move on to the technicalities.

Is not the point of the hon. Gentleman's amendments that they go some way towards making it more difficult for the body that is not directly accountable to those on whom the taxes would fall to impose those taxes? That is why, for instance, he wants to move from 12 months to five years and why he tabled the amendment on RPI. For my part, I do not think that he goes far enough, but I certainly support him in his general direction.

That is precisely my point. Because the PTA is not accountable to the public, it becomes accountable to itself. Because it becomes accountable to itself, it becomes internally focused. Because it becomes internally focused, and does not see the outside argument, it tends to be profligate and to increase its resources and staff, to the extent that it now has 900 employees. In the light of your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not stay on the point, but I think that the public have the right to expect that the body should be properly accountable, and that is what my amendments are about. Whether it be in the course of our deliberations today or on Third Reading, we need to make that point and to get it across, because the situation is not doing a service to the people of Merseyside.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend that the passenger transport authority is profligate in its use of resources. I object to the implication that the 900 people who work for the PTA are employed for reasons that are not necessarily related to the activities of the authority, which serves the people of Merseyside well.

I must beg to differ. Merseyside passenger transport authority operates five miles of tunnels and three modest and elderly ferries. It administers various matters, but it is responsible for only two operations. I find it difficult to understand why that requires 900 people. Doubtless, Merseytravel will send me a message, as it usually does, asking me to explain that.

If the authority is inefficient and profligate, will my hon. Friend explain why the chairman was voted chairman of the year out of all the transport authorities and why the chief executive—

I am sorry not to have the opportunity to explain that.

My proposal to constrain any tendency to profligacy and to encourage efficiency is based on two ideas.

I am trying to follow my hon. Friend's argument as closely as I can, although he has a tendency to skip a few pages at a time. He appears to advance the argument that the mechanism is necessary because he does not believe that the PTA is an efficient, accountable and proper body for undertaking the tasks. Does he accept that many of us do not agree? Let me give one example. Councillor Robbie Crummie from Knowsley, who happens to be here at the moment, ensures that he is accountable not only to the borough council but to his electorate. He covers such issues in his election address. He makes himself very accountable.

Order. No one who is not an hon. Member can be here at the moment.

My alternative proposal is based on two ideas. In some respects, the amendments appear to contradict each other because they apply to the same clauses. However, I do not believe that they could be as damaging as the Bill. Under the first model, tolls would be increased every five years rather than every year.

In view of the indirect choice of the PTA, what difficulties does auditing the accounts of the tolls solve? I get the impression that there is no adequate auditing of the revenues from the tolls or the way in which the money is spent.

I shall deal with that later, but it is my impression that the accounts are only partially audited and that some inventive accounting goes on.

The first model that I propose would increase tolls every five years rather than every year. It uses Merseytravel's methods in that the RPI forms the basis for the increase. However, I propose the use of a mean average figure for the five years that precede making a new order, to provide a more equitable increase.

My hon. Friend proposes changing the date in the Bill. Is he linking that change to other amendments or does the proposal stand alone?

To the best of my recollection, it stands on its own. I shall try to explore that issue later.

I am proposing a mean average figure for the five years preceding the making of the new order, to provide a more equitable increase. I doubt, however, that a rise is justified at all, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) has begun to elucidate.

I am prepared to accept that my statistics are not as good as those of other hon. Members, but will my hon. Friend explain what he means by a "mean average"? Why did he choose that particular calculation as opposed to a median average or some other average for the five-year period?

I shall have to work this out. What I think I mean is that, if the figures over a period of five years were variously three, four, three, four and eight, the sum total would be 18, which, when divided by five, would give the mean average. I hope that that is right; that is certainly my intention.

What I am proposing here is a five-yearly rise. I want to limit the rises as far as possible because, to tell the truth, I do not believe that rises are justified at all.

I know that my hon. Friend is an honourable man, and I know that he would not wish deliberately to mislead the House. In view of some of the statements that he has already made, therefore, will he confirm the following three points? First, Merseytravel employs 824 staff—not 900 as he said—many of whom are employed in such activities as ensuring that there is disabled access.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was in the Chamber when the figure of 900 came up, and it did not come from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), but from my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South then adopted it.

I was indeed. Just for the sake of accuracy—wherever the figure of 900 came from—will my hon. Friend confirm that there are 824 staff, many of whom are employed in necessary activities such as ensuring that there is disabled access? Will he also confirm that the audit arrangements, which he and some other hon. Members have criticised, involve the district auditor auditing the accounts of Merseytravel or the passenger transport authority, that they have been done like that for 15 years, and that they have never been qualified? Finally, will he confirm that what the Bill proposes, and what he is seeking to amend, are not annual increases but an annual review? Those two things are not necessarily the same.

First, the figure of 900 people, which my hon. Friend suggests is not as it should be, is a figure that I obtained from the Library of the House. I therefore thought that it would have sufficient collateral attached to it. On my hon. Friend's point about the accounts, I shall come to that issue in a moment and I intend to cover it as far as I can. If my hon. Friend intervened on me again, he could remind me of his second point.

My hon. Friend has tempted me, but he has dealt with my first and second points. It was the third point that he missed, which was that the Bill provides for an annual review—a provision that he seeks to amend—and not necessarily an annual increase, and that the two are not necessarily the same.

On that point, it is my firmly held view that, although Merseytravel built into the Bill a provision to review the increase every year and to decide whether or not to implement it, the idea of Merseytravel not implementing an increase would be similar to turkeys voting for Christmas. After all, this is the body that introduced the Bill, the body that promoted the Bill and the body which, in my view, has shown a tendency never to resist spending or raising tunnel tolls.

5.15 pm

As always, my hon. Friend is being generous in giving way.

Whether we are talking about an annual review or an annual increase, the fact remains that the Bill allows for an annual increase. If toll increases, inflationary as they would be, are regularly imposed annually, businesses will be subject to a great deal of uncertainty. A five-year period would help them to plan.

I apologise for intervening on discussion of what is principally a Merseyside matter, but as I intend to take advantage of the opportunity to vote, I should be grateful for some clarification. Coming as I do from the only passenger transport authority area in Scotland, I am interested in passenger transport authorities. Would the amendments have an adverse effect on the maintenance and refurbishment of the tunnels, and on Merseyside's public transport in general?

Certainly not. Ample money is available in Merseyside PTA, and indeed on Merseyside, which—unlike my hon. Friend's area, I suspect—benefits from objective 1 status. Money is now chasing projects rather than projects chasing money.

I want to limit the increases not to place a burden on business, but to take account of the profits said to be inherent in the accounts of Merseytravel. It is said, for example, that any surpluses may have been transferred to reserves or appropriated, so that the bottom line does not show the full extent of the profit.

My hon. Friend is, as I have said, an honourable man, who would not wish to mislead the House. He should, however, reflect on the answer that he gave our hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall). The amendments would limit Merseytravel's revenue-raising capacity, and a delay of, say, five years could well lead to the circumstances described by our hon. Friend. Wise though he is, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South cannot stare too far into the future. The restriction of revenue could, over a number of years, affect the amount available for improvements, alterations and even safety measures.

I do not think so. I think there is enough money in the tunnels, in the authority and in Merseyside to cater for almost any eventuality. What we should perhaps do is explore those sources of funds more than we have hitherto, rather than expecting users of the tunnel to pay for services when they have no practical alternative to the use of those services. That is unjust and immoral.

I am sure my hon. Friend knows that objective 1 money cannot be used to fund revenue-based projects, which include health and safety projects. Moreover, in the absence of toll increases, the burden of financing substantial health and safety improvements will fall on Merseyside's ratepayers, including vast numbers of people who do not currently use the tunnel. Hence the need for the Bill.

I do not accept that argument. We have been told that there is an obligation to repay money to the districts but my understanding is that, at least in some circumstances, that money has not been repaid but gone into the general accounts of Merseytravel.

We need to explore, which I am attempting to do, how much money is around. I do not think that it is right in economic terms or any other terms that the users of the tunnel should fund transport schemes on Merseyside. I am content that the users of the tunnel should fund the tunnels and improvements to them, as well as better facilities in them—and, if need be, fund more tunnels—but I do not think that it is right and proper to use money raised from tunnel tolls to fund other projects.

Has not the sponsor of the Bill let the cat out of the bag? The objection that many of us have to the Bill is that it taxes the limited number of people who use the tunnel and that the money will be used to finance transport projects far away, which our constituents will not use. If the amendment were carried, there might not be enough money in the tunnels' budget to pay for basic repairs and health and safety work. The sponsor of the Bill says that it would be unfair if taxpayers who never use the tunnel had to foot that bill, but the point behind all our amendments is that those who support the Bill wish to tax our constituents for the benefit of other constituents who never use the tunnel.

Order. I must again advise the House that issues of general principle in connection with the Bill are most appropriately discussed on Second Reading and on Third Reading. At the moment, we are discussing a particular group of amendments. The debate should be confined to those.

I hope that you. Mr. Deputy Speaker, will accept my line of argument. What I propose to argue is that a five-yearly review is more appropriate than an annual review, or annual increase, whichever hon. Members prefer, because there is no need for increases in the first place. Part of that results from the accounting practices of the Merseyside passenger transport authority.

My hon. Friend makes much of the argument that there is loads of money sloshing around on Merseyside. He has repeated the claim that, hidden away within the accounts of Merseytravel, there is money that is either being wasted or not used for the purpose for which it was designated. Is he also saying that the five local authorities on Merseyside have money to spare that they can throw at the tunnels, disproportionately—I am one of the first to admit it—for the benefit of some constituents rather than others? Is the gist of his argument that the cost can be met from within the existing funds of the five local authorities, including Wirral?

I think that it can be met from the resources of Merseytravel and that there is scope for making more use of the ample resources that are available in Merseyside. I will develop that point later, I hope. I do not think that tunnel users should be expected to pay for other transport projects. It is a tax on them and it is not fair. My point, which is not a constituency one, is that, overall, if a tunnel toll is particular to the Merseyside economy, it will serve as a considerable competitive disadvantage to that economy because it deters investors, it deters foreign direct investment, and it costs people.

For example, if John Lewis were to take a lorry through the tunnels four times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, according to my calculation the overhead would be £10,000 in that lorry alone. If we multiply that figure by the number of lorries going to and fro from the docks, the number of delivery vans going through and all the people who are legitimately trying to get to work, we realise that we are talking about a considerable disadvantage to the Merseyside economy. If we then increase that considerable disadvantage year on year, whether we need to or not, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.

Liverpool has just won the title of capital of culture, which will allow its development in various ways. Why, then, should we hinder that development by passing this Bill? Hindering that development is precisely what this Bill would do.

My hon. Friend's amendment proposes a five-year review, yet he keeps referring to annual increases. What he means is annual reviews, which are not necessarily the same thing.

I thought that I had already answered that point, so I will not repeat it. What I am trying to say in my own awkward way is that it is said that Merseytravel goes in for some creative or unusual accounting, which allows profit from the tunnels to appear to be less than it really is. One difficulty with this issue is that when we try to raise it, somebody always tries to shut us up. When people raise it publicly, they are threatened with action. We may not be exclusively right in the views that we hold, and there may be nuances of error; but it is surely right and proper that we discuss these things openly and freely.

My hon. Friend mentioned an internal loan and accounting practices. Does he agree that the internal loan appeared to be—

Order. This cannot have anything to do with the amendment at all. The only threat to the free discussion of this issue by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) is from the Chair, in that I have to uphold the rules of the House to ensure that debate is strictly relevant to the proposals that he has placed before the House. He has been speaking for 43 minutes already and he is in danger of becoming a little repetitious. I simply give a first warning on that.

I shall move on, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and try to deal with some other points. I have probably covered the point about Merseytravel's accounts, although not in the detail that I would have liked. However, there will be further opportunities to discuss it.

The tunnels are in profit and there is no sign of them ceasing to be so. A five-yearly rise seems perfectly adequate to me, and, taking into account the fragility of the Merseyside economy, my amendment would limit the damaging effects on local industry and business of an opportunity to apply a year-on-year toll rise. The current arrangements are thoroughly bad, and a five-yearly review would be better.

My hon. Friend might like to consider one aspect of the memorandum to the Bill. Merseyside passenger transport authority said that the

"two cornerstones of this Government's policy on integrated transport are to develop public transport and reduce road traffic".
If it is really true that Merseytravel wishes to reduce road traffic, it is going about it the wrong way. An increase in tolls will not be like a congestion charge, because demand to use the Mersey tunnels is inelastic. In fact, such an increase will simply raise the authority's revenue without cutting traffic, because there is no alternative and there are no plans to help public transport going through the Mersey tunnels.

That is absolutely right. The fact remains that, judging by the bus services in my constituency and the letters that I receive about train services, switching to rail or to public transport in the form of coach journeys is not a practical alternative. Similarly, as I said earlier, switching to the Runcorn bridge is undesirable and not a practical alternative. It is already chronically congested to such an extent that proposals for another Mersey crossing as a response to the problem have already been made. Although the Bill is presented as a means of controlling traffic, it has nothing to do with that. It is simply another means of raising dosh—nothing more, nothing less.

5.30 pm

I shall proceed by examining the RPI minus X formula, which is specific to my proposed amendment. It uses a formula for raising tolls slightly different from Merseytravel's model. The current framework requires Merseyside passenger transport authority to justify any increase in tolls to the Secretary of State. The removal of that condition amounts to removal of accountability. Tolls could be raised in perpetuity, regardless of cost-effectiveness and efficiency, and without the approval of any outside authority or tunnel users. If the MPTA is to maintain any semblance of accountability and credibility, it must either institute a robust and, to some extent, binding system of consultation or adjust its formula to that of RPI minus X.

The aim is to have X set as a figure by the Secretary of State. The amendment would effectively institute a system commonly used among natural monopoly utilities to provide a regulatory check on rising prices. Price regulation is designed to control the abuse of market power. The aim is to ensure that prices are no higher than would be charged by an efficient company operating in a competitive market. As I have said, I view the MPTA as an organisation with a tendency to profligacy, which necessitates the introduction of such a system in order to enforce efficiencies in preference to allowing the current unchecked growth.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the formula that he is helpfully setting out is similar in effect to the one that was applied to the privatised utilities? It has worked well in respect of the former public companies, to the benefit of consumers.

I agree with my hon. Friend and I was going to make that point in a few moments.

I have always felt that Merseytravel's chosen formula for annually reviewing tolls was flawed. Putting up prices in relation to inflation may seem reasonable, but inflation may not always be at its present level. During the Thatcher years, it reached 15 per cent., or thereabouts—my hon. Friends will correct me if I am wrong. If we increased tunnel tolls by 15 per cent., without any effective consultative mechanisms in place, it would indeed be disastrous for the economy of Merseyside. It has to be remembered that the retail prices index is based on the price of a basket of goods—essentially products such as food and fuel. The MPTA, the Mersey tunnels and other public utilities do not use them—or at least not in any large measure.

I am not happy about the fact that Merseytravel is asking for an arbitrary power to raise tolls year on year.

When price increases have been justified in the past, they have been granted, and I can see no reason why they should not be granted in future, provided a case is made for them.

Is my hon. Friend aware that while the Bill passes through the House, under the scheme for raising charges that currently exists, the Merseyside passenger transport executive—somewhat cheekily—is putting through an order to raise the cost of using the tunnels? That is happening under the old system, as we speak, which demonstrates that it can be used as and when necessary.

Absolutely, and I have no problem with tunnel toll increases if they are justified. In the past, when the executive has justified increases, it has obtained them. That is why I did not raise any objection in the consultation on the toll increase. If the executive can establish a need to do so, tolls should be increased. However, the Bill asks for toll increases without justification, save that the cost of living index has risen.

RPI minus X is effectively a price control and a method of bringing efficiency and cost-effective service to a monopoly organisation, which is what the Mersey tunnels are, being publicly owned. It was originally implemented in the 1980s and 1990s to deal with poorly managed nationalised industries and it proved effective. Costs were cut and, eventually, significant price reductions were passed on to customers. Would not we like to see that in relation to the Mersey tunnels? Merseytravel should be made to conform to the restrictions, and efficiency savings need to be made if tolls are not to keep rising. I can see no case for increasing tolls, whether or not there is any cause to do so. In fact, I can see considerable harm being caused to the public of Merseyside and to the economy.

It seems unfair that Merseytravel expects tunnel users to give and give, while it gives nothing back.

Is my hon. Friend aware that an annual review based on the RPI, rather than RPI minus X, is the formula used for the Dartford and Severn crossings? Does he think that if it is appropriate in those cases, it is appropriate on Merseyside?

No, I do not. We are not discussing the Dartford or any other crossing: we are discussing the Mersey tunnels, which are a sort of artery that is peculiar to Merseyside. They are the busiest route in our anthill. They are an essential artery for the economy. The other crossings are national issues, but the Mersey tunnels are different.

Surely the point is that we are discussing the Mersey tunnels, not national tolling, so the issue is irrelevant. My hon. Friend said that he saw no cause to increase tolls. What would be a reason for an increase in tolls?

If there was an effective means of controlling traffic flows through the tunnel, it might be one reason. Another reason might be a demonstrated shortage of funds in Merseytravel. Tunnel users have no choice but to go through them, be it to the night shift at Jaguar or to hospitals or other jobs.

Theatre-goers have a degree of choice.

For the most part, people go through the tunnels because they have to; they have no choice in the matter. On Second Reading, one hon. Member said that he went through the tunnels regularly, just for the pleasure of it. By and large, people do not do that; they make the journey out of necessity.

My hon. Friend is overegging the pudding somewhat. I used to teach at Birkenhead tech, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I travelled every day, from Huyton to Birkenhead, on public transport—by train first, then on the underground loop. That is perfectly possible, and people do have choice. My hon. Friend should not be so misleading as to suggest that they do not have alternatives.

My hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that, young though he looks, it is a year or two since he worked at Birkenhead tech. I think that that was before the deregulation of bus services, although I may be wrong about that.

I do not know whether I explain myself badly, or whether my hon. Friend does not listen, but I travelled by train and on the underground loop from Liverpool city centre, and neither option has been affected in the slightest by bus deregulation.

I did not misunderstand the point at all. My point is that tunnel users have no choice. Bus services have deteriorated since my hon. Friend used to travel to Birkenhead, whether he used them or not. If my postbag is to be believed, the train services are pretty chronic—

Order. This is a very interesting discussion of the various modes of transport throughout Liverpool and the Wirral, but the hon. Gentleman should return to the fairly precise amendment to which he is speaking.

My hon. Friend has said that an increase in price could be used to influence the flow of traffic through the tunnel. Does he agree with those who argue that alternative forms of transport exist and that increasing the charges in the proposed way is a form of congestion charging? Will that be part of the policy inflicted on the public as a result of the Bill?

Mr. Chapman rose—

Order. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) must not get sidetracked by interventions such as that. He was speaking very specifically to a group of amendments. He ought to do that now.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Obviously, I did not want to lead my hon. Friend astray. My question arose out of his speech.

That is not a point of order for the Chair. We ought to get on with the debate.

At present, Merseytravel must justify increases in tolls. That should not change. Indeed, I think that Merseytravel should also be made to justify properly its spending on other projects, especially when using money from the tunnels. The formula RPI minus X provides an accountable system for that. It brings efficiencies and cost-effectiveness, and prevents wild increases in tolls.

Across the utilities, the present statutory framework does not prescribe what form price regulation should take, but in practice the regulators have chosen to use RPI minus X. Price caps are set by the regulator for the period of a price review, which is typically five years, on the basis of detailed forecasts of costs and revenues provided by the regulated organisation. I see considerable merit in that, and there is no reason why it should not be applied to Merseyside passenger transport authority.

In the immediate post-privatisation period, there were concerns over the level of profits made by some of the privatised companies, in spite of the price caps put in place on flotation. That is why the Government levied a windfall tax immediately on coming into power. That dealt with excess profits following the original privatisation. Subsequently, the mechanism has been tightened and there are more effective controls. They give the right incentives to deliver efficiencies and should continue to bear down on prices. If the system is good enough for the majority of our utilities, why cannot it be applied to the tunnels? As I hope I have demonstrated, that regulatory system is effective and flexible and, in most instances, has been used successfully.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so generously. Will he confirm that his definition of efficiencies in the MPTA means job losses, and, if so, how many such losses would he expect to occur before he is satisfied with the situation?

No, efficiency does not mean job losses; it means effective operation. I do not have a dictionary with me, but the word certainly does not mean job losses; it means doing things in the best possible way.

What proportion of the costs would be for staffing? If operating efficiency did not come from staffing cuts, where does my hon. Friend imagine it would come from?

It is not for me to run the Mersey tunnels or the MPTA; it is for the chairman, the executive and the authority to decide on those things.

RPI minus X was applied effectively to utilities, so why are people saying that it would mean job losses if it was applied to the Mersey tunnels? That does not make sense.

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. Unfortunately, new schedule 1, which I proposed, was not selected, but it included a short definition of "efficient manner" that my hon. Friend might agree was suitable. It stated that there should be value for money and that the management costs should not exceed—

Order. The reason why amendments are not selected is well known to the hon. Gentleman. We cannot start to discuss amendments that have not been selected.

Whatever the definition of efficiency, in the absence of a regulator, the RPI minus X system would provide a check on the MPTA in the form of the Secretary of State. Indeed, I understand that the system would allow the Secretary of State to reduce tolls, if he saw fit, simply by raising X to a value higher than that of RPI.

We need to establish a clear, long-term principle for price regulation that will ensure that consumers receive a fair deal, and that the legitimacy and stability of the regulatory system for the tunnels is maintained. We need to ensure that RPI minus X delivers that.

The system provides incentives to efficiency in the absence of a regulator, relying on price regulation administered by the Secretary of State. That background both informs the case of the MPTA and carries it forward. It shows us the application of RPI minus X and the importance of transparency, which is sometimes difficult in such circumstances, in the mechanisms that would help to spread best practice and cost-effectiveness through accountability.

The primary aim of price regulation is to protect consumers. One approach would be to rely exclusively on RPI minus X. An alternative would be to make greater use of error correction mechanisms as a supplement to RPI minus X, thereby providing a clear, built-in means of sharing the benefits when they differ from those envisaged when the price cap was set.

Price regulation is designed to control abuse by a monopoly. The aim is to ensure that prices are no higher than those that would be charged by an efficient organisation in a competitive market.

Will my hon. Friend clarify what he defines as a competitive market in this field?

In this field, there is no competitive market, so there must be a mechanism to arrive at one. That is what RPI minus X does.

The basic system that I have set out will, I hope, institute accountability and regulation as a means to achieve efficiency and cost-effectiveness—strands that are currently lacking throughout the authority and that will not result from the Bill. That is why I am proposing this important amendment.

I hesitate to intervene again because I have had to correct my hon. Friend on so many occasions, but will he confirm that RPI minus X, which he advocates, is the very formula that led to the bankrupting of Railtrack, that Mersey tunnel debt repayments amount to some £14 million a year—the answer that he was unable to give to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) a few moments ago—that maintenance, including the staff involved, costs £11 million a year and that capital refurbishment costs £7 million a year?

Order. That was a very long intervention. Interventions are becoming very long.

We have been told that Railtrack was driven into bankruptcy by that mechanism, but to the best of my knowledge, it did not go into bankruptcy, and in my view, management, rather than the formula, was the problem.

I shall try to make this point later, but my hon. Friend is of course right, but the fact that Railtrack ended up having to be saved from bankruptcy proceedings by the then Secretary of State makes my point for me.

Well, I do not think that it does, nor do I think that my hon. Friend has corrected me in any instance. He has certainly made some contrary points, but by no stretch of the imagination could they be called corrections.

I shall now finish. This important amendment would transform the nature of the MPTA and its relationship with local people and the local economy, and in my view it would make the relationship very much better and the organisation very much more effective.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I enlist your guidance on this group of amendments? I am attracted by some amendments more than others. In respect of selection for voting, if I wanted to vote on amendment No. 35, for example, would it be in order to ask to vote on it individually in due course?

Depending on how the debate has gone and on how much debate has taken place on that amendment, there is no reason why the occupant of the Chair should not allow such a vote, but that is entirely a matter for the Chair.

I was the Chairman of the Committee that considered this, then opposed, private Bill some months ago. After one and a half days of sittings, the opponents withdrew and, therefore, the details—including amendments such as those in this group, which relate to tolls, the timing of the increases in tolls and the basis on which those increases would be determined—were not considered by that Committee in any way, shape or form. They were not scrutinised; the Bill itself was not scrutinised, so I must report to the House that what was broadly a bad and undemocratic Bill was not corrected and that it should now be rejected.

Let me turn to the amendments in this group. In particular, I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 22, 23, 35 and 24.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am grateful to him for informing the House of his position during consideration in Committee. Having looked at the proceedings in Committee, is it his view, as it was mine, that he and other hon. Members were not helped in their inquiries by the answers that counsel for Merseytravel gave in Committee?

May I crave your indulgence for a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Yes, I think that it is right to suggest that the Committee did not feel that its concerns and worries were dealt with. In particular, the Committee did not deal with items relating to amendments such as those in this group—Nos. 22, 35 and so on. There were a number of significant problems that the Committee wished to explore, but we were unable to do so because a deal was done behind the Committee's back. It was simply reported to us that the opposition had withdrawn, and the Committee had to fold immediately, without further scrutiny of this bad and undemocratic Bill.

Given that the hon. Gentleman chaired the Committee stage of this private Bill, what he has just said is immensely important. I wish him to emphasise it, because there is some criticism in Merseyside of those who wish to scrutinise the Bill properly, and we are dubbed "wreckers". It is important that people back home realise that had those who were lodging objections not done, as he described it, a deal behind the Committee's back, the Committee stage would have taken its proper time, with proper consideration, and would have reported—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has made his point. The hon. Gentleman who has the Floor ought now to deal with the amendments before the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have listened carefully to the serious allegations made about the way in which business was conducted surrounding this private Bill, and I seek your guidance. I presume that there is a mechanism in the House whereby the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and other Committee members, if they felt so persuaded, could take up their complaints about lack of co-operation in relation to the promoters' legal advisers on the Bill, and have the matter deliberated on. Could you advise us on what that mechanism is?

There are all sorts of ways in which Members can go about their business in this House, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. My concern is to preserve the business today. To that end, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor would deal with the amendments before the House.

I am delighted to turn to the amendments, which go some way towards removing the power to tax from a body that is not directly accountable to those on whom those taxes would fall. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) was therefore right to table amendments that seek to restrict the power of the Merseyside passenger transport authority to raise taxes through tolls. If the Bill is passed without amendment, the House will be unable to prevent the MPTA from raising taxes. The MPTA would effectively have more power even than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is at least nominally controllable by this House.

The hon. Gentleman makes an issue of the power to tax by a body that is indirectly elected. It has already been said that that is not unique on Merseyside. The Merseyside police authority has the power to tax via a precept everybody on Merseyside, regardless of whether they use its facilities. What does he think of that—

Order. The debate is now moving all over the place. It is about narrowly defined amendments, and if the hon. Gentleman cannot address them, I must ask him to resume his seat.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was attempting to address the amendments. Let me go straight to amendment No. 35, which relates to RPI minus X. Under that amendment, X is fixed by the Secretary of State, who is accountable to this House, and this House is accountable to the population on whom the taxes would fall. It therefore strikes me that the amendment is extremely democratising and entirely worthy, and is therefore worthy of our support.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday mentioned to the House moving away from the RPI to a more European model? Would the hon. Gentleman like to see a more European model inserted into the Bill?

Order. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman is trying the patience of the Chair.

6 pm

I do not think that the amendment contains a European model, and I would not support such a measure.

It is not right to say that just because the system contains some anomalies and several non-democratic bodies are effectively able to raise taxation without representation, we should create another such body. The whole point of the amendments is to seek to make the Bill more democratic and taxation procedures more accountable to the people on whom the taxes would fall. I support the amendments, so far as they go, and if possible, I would like them to go further.

I support amendment No. 18, which is tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford). I shall also speak to amendment No. 35.

I have a different frame of mind from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman). I do not share his views about the transport authority. I have been a Member of the House for a little longer than him and have had eye-to-eye contact with several bodies whose behaviour reflects badly on my constituents' welfare and with which I am unhappy. I rejoice that I am not trying to have an eye-to-eye with the transport authority today.

Recent changes have been beneficial. I admire my hon. Friend's courage for speaking as he did and saying what he believed to be true while knowing that those views would get back to the people about whom he spoke. I usually find it easier to be rude to people than to be polite, so I have a slightly different role this evening vis-aacute-vis the transport authority.

It is worth putting on record the fact that amendment No. 35 relates to a different period from that covered by my stewardship of my constituency. It also relates directly to my hon. Friend's questions about efficiency. The amendment and the way in which he spoke to it were attractive.

I shall tell the House a tale. In my early days as a Member, the tunnel workers held a strike. The then tunnel authorities put out honesty buckets and found that they collected more money from the buckets than they did when the staff were at work and tolls were collected. That might suggest that it is totally proper that the transport authority in our area, as opposed to authorities about which I know nothing, has its mind wonderfully concentrated on finding ways to run the tunnels more efficiently.

Although I admire the skills of the senior officers who look after the transport authority, we all know what happens if we have a mechanism that concentrates the mind wonderfully—that is what Dr. Johnson said about being hanged in the morning. The RPI minus X provision in amendment No. 35 might well do that, and I hope that we will have the chance to vote on it.

I was about to address the argument made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), but I shall give way to him first.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on tabling amendment No. 18, because it would achieve something laudable. It would force the Merseyside passenger transport authority to examine its efficiency and try to find management and operational efficiencies, as every other public body—police forces, educational establishments or hospitals—is forced to do. Leaving the Bill unamended would be a bad thing because it would give the authority the power to raise taxes whether or not it examined its efficiency, and would give the House no means of controlling that.

It would indeed, and I wish to address that point. What is so extraordinary about the Bill if it is not amended is that it gives the Merseyside passenger transport authority powers that we have jealously guarded over the centuries because we are unwilling to concede them to a Chancellor of the Exchequer. We limit every taxation measure that the Chancellor brings to this place by giving him authority to raise taxes for one year only. The Bill would give to a body that is indirectly responsible to elected bodies in Merseyside powers that far extend those we give to our Chancellor. As soon as I read the Bill, I realised that that was unacceptable. There is much in it that I support, as I shall make clear when I speak to amendment No. 18.

I seek clarification on two points. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he does not believe that the staff of Merseyside passenger transport authority are thieves? Will he also acknowledge that the inflation increases enjoyed by the fire authority and the police authority are awarded without the preamble that the MPTA is expected to pursue to get increases to support its operational activities?

I have already learned about the dangers of responding to interventions, partly because I do not want to incur your disfavour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and partly because I want to emphasise something that my hon. Friend said when she responded to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) on my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton was dragging a red herring in the path of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South, who did not answer the question that he raised. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) did, and that answer is crucial to the argument that I want to develop.

I will not respond to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby because I do not wish to attack the transport authority. It is not its fault that it has been set up by Parliament in the way that it has. Bodies such as hospitals, school boards and transport authorities will increasingly be elected directly, certainly before our political lives are over. That is what our constituents will demand of us and legislation will be introduced to that effect. However, we are not discussing that today.

I have no wish to cast aspersions on the transport authority. I do not want to consider the democratic deficit. That is the body we have. I do not, however, want to give it taxing powers of the nature that are set out in the Bill for the very reason that my good hon. Friend gave when she responded to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton. She said how awful it would be if amendment No. 35 were agreed to, because if it forced such efficiencies and sent the accounts into deficit, who would bail out the transport authority? My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton suggested that it would be the local authorities, which previously had to shoulder the body's deficits. The point he raised was proper. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said how unfair it would be that those who largely do not use the tunnels would have to make up in their council tax the deficit that might arise if amendment No. 35 were accepted. That gave the game away.

Of course, we expect hon. Members whose constituents rarely, if ever, use the tunnel to be in favour of the measure. I have had informal talks with my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who taught at what he called Birkenhead tech. That shows how long ago it was—it has changed its name twice since its students benefited from his teaching skills.

The body in question may well have changed its name, but I have not changed mine. If I may correct myself, it was called Birkenhead college of technology—I was just using a shorthand description.

Indeed. Some of my constituents who come to me to talk about their welfare problems refer to the unemployment assistance board—a body that was active in the 1930s. They know that the name has changed, but other things have not. My hon. Friend is right; those of us on my side of the river knew perfectly well what he was referring to.

To return to the substantive point, I share the anguish of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby that her constituents who rarely use the tunnel may, if amendment No. 35 is accepted, have to foot the bill for the deficit. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South has the cheek to suggest that her constituents should pay extra money so that people from Wirral, South, Wirral, West, areas further down the peninsula and Birkenhead can use the tunnel. May I make the case for such payments by asking a rhetorical question? Does my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby not understand the anguish of people whom we are trying to represent and who use the tunnels? Why should they pay over and above the cost of the tunnels, and other measures included in the Bill, so that there can be transport improvements in her constituency, where people rarely use the tunnel? Why should my constituents' contributions to the toll revenue pay for those improvements?

I am all in favour of the transport authority seeking ways in which to improve our transport, but I do not totally share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South about the authority. I have just moved house in Birkenhead, and use public transport more than I used to. Given the constraints on such transport, I am impressed. Of course we want further improvements, but when we make them, the cost of doings so should be fairly shared. People who are clustered around the tunnel entrances on both sides of the river constitute most of those who use the tunnel, and they should not have to pay for improvements in Crosby, Southport and elsewhere. When we come to discuss improvements, we should think about the transport authority's general powers to raise money and the general powers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise money and subsidise public transport. We should consider using those broader shoulders to carry the burden of financing improvements in Merseyside overall.

In a moment. I am not asking people who have to use the tunnel to contribute more than anybody else or pay for improvements to the exclusion of others. I shall give way to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West, but I shall then talk about what we should give to the transport authority in the Bill, although I am not in favour of its final catch-all clause.

Is my right hon. Friend saying that the Bill's sponsor is willing to swap what she believes is one iniquity—it arose when the cluster of local authorities that had put money into the Mersey tunnels wanted their money back—for another? The difference is that the new regime, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, will benefit the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) at the expense of ours. When money was loaned by the five local authorities to bail out the Mersey tunnel, it was believed that that would have economic benefits for the Mersey sub-region as a whole.

I certainly agree with that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will catch the Deputy Speaker's eye so that he can develop that important view. I appeal to my hon. Friends, who are fine representatives, as I try to be in Birkenhead, to examine the issue of taxation that was raised by the previous speaker, and how that ought to override the partial interest that they have in the measure to get my constituents and other constituents who have to use the tunnel to pay for improvements in their constituencies.

6.15 pm

The point that I made did not ignore the fact that the people of Sefton and of Crosby have made multi-million pound donations to the development and management of the tunnels, but there comes a point when an ongoing subsidy is difficult to manage and difficult to accept, when 93 per cent. of my constituents do not use the facility. When money is tight, we must look at priorities. That is the view that I have taken on their behalf.

I do not dispute that for a moment, but it is separate from the substantive issue that we are debating, or anything to do with the Bill that my hon. Friend has been proposing. When I get on to amendment No. 18—

I want to give way to as many hon. Members as possible, although I know the dangers of doing so. I give way to my hon. Friend.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the economies of the tunnel do not relate to the users of the tunnel alone? The economies of the tunnel affect people throughout Merseyside and far beyond—people in north Wales, east Lancashire and, in some circumstances, Cheshire—[Interruption]—and Sefton. Adding charges to the tunnels would be detrimental to them.

Of course it would. I am sorry that, because of my hon. Friend's urgency in completing his contribution, he did not have a chance to develop that.

I again appeal to hon. Members to put aside their partial views on the measure and the immediate advantages in favour of the longer-term advantage. In that intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South was rightly hinting at the fact that in trying to represent the views of our constituents, all of us have a vital interest in seeing our region do as well as possible. If there is a measure that would make our region less attractive and pull away from Liverpool the huge spin-off of regeneration that came from Glasgow, and the cultural effects of that right down to the north Wales border, it will be to the detriment of all our constituents if it takes effect. We should put aside the partial interests represented in the Bill and concentrate on the major issues.

I shall give way in the order in which I saw hon. Members seeking to intervene.

It is high-minded of my right hon. Friend to appeal to objectivity and resolve, but none of us is perfect. Will he explain how he thinks I should react, given that of the regular users of the Mersey tunnel—private car owners—23 per cent. come from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman)? I understand my hon. Friend arguing on behalf of those people, but only a small proportion—13 per cent.—come from the entire city of Liverpool, and a very small proportion of those come from my constituency. Does not my right hon. Friend think that it is reasonable to feel partial towards those people who get nothing out of the tunnel?

Order. Before the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) replies to that, I am sure he will appreciate that the argument is starting to widen out again. I know he did not intend that, but I should be grateful if he would gently return to the amendments before the House.

I was going to resist answering that question, on the basis that it has nothing to do with the measures before us. If my hon. Friend was saying that all the major local authorities bailed out the two tunnels in the past and that, when it comes to paying back the debts, they should get their money back, I totally support him. When my hon. Friends allow me to get on to amendment No. 18, I shall make that plain. I am not asking hon. Members representing constituents with a vested interest in terms of the money that they sank into the tunnels in order to keep them open, largely for the benefit of constituents on the Wirral—although of course, there is also a general benefit to the economy and culture of our region as a whole—not to take such a position. I have no wish to table amendments to try to rob constituents in other parts of Liverpool of their proper due in repayment of the money that they gave to bail out and keep open the tunnels, which are a primary concern to our side in the Wirral, as a lot of employment used to be over in Liverpool, although that is becoming less so as employment is developed in north Wales. Of course the issue is more important to us. None the less, previous debts have to be met, and that should happen without the imposition on us of a tax for ever and a day until we get around to removing the Bill, should it appear on the statute book.

The right hon. Gentleman is advancing his arguments very carefully, as he always does. Does he not regret that amendment No. 18, which seeks to give the MPTA the ability to freeze tolls, was not properly discussed by my Committee? Those who opposed the Bill, so that it went to an Opposed Private Bill Committee—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is referring to previous proceedings. We now have the opportunity to debate the amendment, and that is precisely what we are doing.

I know that you understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the reason why some of us, in our excitement and the urgency of our wish to discuss the issues, might stray a little beyond any amendment—I have been very careful to resist my hon. Friends' efforts to bring me out of order—is that there was no proper Committee stage. If I had not, in my naive way, thought that those who puffed up their chests and told us that the provisions would be ruthlessly examined in Committee were serious, I would have made some objections to ensure that we had a proper Committee stage.

Returning to amendment No. 18, surely the ability to freeze tolls would help businesses in the general locality and region, and thereby enable that region to generate more jobs and economic activity. That was the very point that the right hon. Gentleman was making before I so rudely and improperly interrupted him previously.

When I get around to speaking to amendment No. 18, I hope to deal with those points and to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton and others that my amendment does not seek to rat on the tunnels authority's historic debt to the surrounding authorities. The money was given and it was most beneficial to constituencies on the other side of the river, and it should be repaid handsomely and with interest to those authorities. However, that is a separate issue from the suggestion that our constituents should be taxed for ever and a day to pay for some good things in Crosby, Southport or even Walton.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the benefits that could accrue across Merseyside and referred to cultural and business activities. Does he agree that sporting activities could also benefit? One particular sporting activity that we want to succeed is the open championship that is coming to Hoylake in 2006.

Order. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead must resist these interventions. When he says that he intends to resist them, he must genuinely do so.

I shall resist responding to the intervention, although I had rather a good way in which to link it to the figures on movements through the tunnels that were given to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton.

I have so far spoken in support of amendment No. 35, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South, and supported the very important point on taxation that was made by the Chairman of the Committee on the Bill, which would have been probed properly had we had a proper Committee stage. We would then have had the Committee's report for the House to consider at this stage of the Bill's proceedings, but we have been denied that. I am therefore immensely grateful for the seriousness of the Chairman's intervention on the whole tenor of the Bill.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it was not possible to have a Committee, as hon. Members would understand it, on the Bill—in fact, a Committee on Opposed Bills sat, but a number of petitioners to that Committee withdrew their objections prior to its taking evidence. Moreover, my right hon. Friend had the opportunity, as we all did—

Order. I have already ruled that we are not here to debate previous proceedings. The hon. Lady's comments are quite out of order.

I will again resist any temptation to answer my hon. Friend's points directly or indirectly.

I wish to move proceedings forward by speaking to amendment No. 18, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West. I tabled the amendment because we did not have the consideration in Committee that I would have hoped for, and because of the intransigence of the people who are promoting the Bill. We were denied a proper Committee stage because people withdrew their objections.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman very directly that he now has the opportunity to debate the amendments that are before the House, one of which is in his name, and I think that he should do precisely that.

I am desperately trying to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by speaking to amendment No. 18.

Because of the intransigence of those who are promoting the measure and are not prepared to consider reasonable argument outside this Chamber, and because we were denied a report from the Committee stage that might have helped our deliberations, I tabled several amendments, one of which is amendment No. 18. It relates to schedule 1(1) and (3).

My right hon. Friend said that there was no opportunity to debate the measures. Can he tell me how many meetings have been made available between him—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As did your predecessor in the Chair, you have properly and repeatedly drawn our attention to what is and is not a proper intervention, yet hon. Friends—and, I confess, on at least one occasion myself—have repeatedly led speakers in the opposite direction. Is it not about time that we all realised that we should be debating the amendment?

6.30 pm

That is not strictly a point of order, but it would be sensible if the hon. Gentleman took his own advice.

We are told that if one sinner repents, there is much rejoicing in heaven. If my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East will not try to lead us further astray with his interventions, it will help our proceedings.

Amendment No. 18 relates to proposed new section 91(3), which has five sub-paragraphs, in schedule 1. I do not object to the transport authority being given the power to vary tunnel costs under the Bill so that the costs and expenses that it incurs in managing, operating and maintaining the tunnels' undertakings are met. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby suggested that somehow we were trying to move amendments that would mean that the authority could not maintain the tunnels in the way in which people expect. I have no wish for the authority to be without those funds.

Sub-paragraph (b) would ensure that the authority had the money to pay off the interest on money that had been borrowed to finance the tunnels' construction and some past debt. I do not object to tunnel tolls being set to a level that fully covers maintenance and the health and safety aspects, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby rightly drew attention earlier. We are also not in the business of ratting on people who have lent money. There is a perfect legal right for interest to be paid on the debts and for the money to be repaid.

I do not object to the authority having the power to change tolls under the Bill and thus ensure that payments to the reserves and renewals fund are maintained in respect of tunnel undertakings. I do not want to change the measure in any way that would mean that, in future, our local authorities might again be called upon to bail out the tunnels' operation. I do not wish the transport authority to be without the power to maintain the ferries. We all know that a specific private Bill would be required to get rid of the ferries.

However, I object to sub-paragraph (e). When we have covered the costs of maintenance, met all the debt interest payments, repaid the debts, got sufficient reserves in the funds to obviate the need ever to call on local authorities to bail the operations out again—the reserves are not defined; we trust the transport authority on that—and covered the costs of ferry maintenance, the PTA should not have the power to levy general taxation, specifically on those who use the tunnels, to pay for other PTA expenditure, however important, necessary or beneficial. That burden should not fall on my constituents, or those in neighbouring constituencies on either side of the tunnel entrances. If we wish to make improvements, which I support, the money should come from general, not specific funds.

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for giving way once again. Has he had the opportunity to undertake any research into how long a freeze of the kind mentioned in amendment No. 18 might reasonably be expected to last? How often in any given period does he believe such a freeze might occur? What circumstances in any given period are likely to arise that would make it likely that the passenger transport authority would operate the provisions in the amendment, if it were inserted into the Bill?

That is the last intervention that I am going to take on this amendment, because most of the time that I have been speaking, I have been replying to interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Crosby, for Liverpool, Walton, for Wirral, West, for Wirral, South, from the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and from the Chairman of the Committee. Obviously, I wish to make my point as clearly and powerfully as possible.

There is much merit in amendment No. 35, in that it will be a stimulus to running our transport authority even more efficiently than the present incumbents do. It is of great importance to all of us, when we try to plan each day's work—let alone each month's or each year's work—to have guidelines such as these. The freezing that is mentioned in my amendment merely relates to the fact that, if we granted the transport authority the power to raise the toll by 10p—a totally proper thing to do; we do not want people putting bits and pieces of change into the machines, which would make them even more difficult to run than at present—there could not be another automatic 10p increase until the bonus increase from a single 10p increase had been wiped out. That is a small but reasonable part of the amendment.

My main proposal is to remove schedule 1(1)(3)(e) from the record. The transport authority has a cheek to come before the House—I do not blame it for trying it on, but I hope that we are not going to fall for it—to suggest that we should permanently delegate to it powers that we have jealously guarded from giving to any Chancellor of the Exchequer for more than 400 years. It would be wrong to entrust a non-elected body, even if it has elected representatives on it, with the task—

Order. The words that the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to leave out are covered by an amendment in the next group—amendment No. 3.

Order. The right hon. Gentleman must not question the Chair. We shall deal with those matters when we come to amendment No. 3.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I commend amendment No. 18 to the House. I hope that hon. Members realise how narrowly focused it is. Some of the other amendments are much more ambitious and sweeping than mine. I hope that the House will accept this amendment and the one that I hope to be able to speak to later in our proceedings.

For a private Bill, this one has had a very eventful life. We are all veterans of the gruelling campaign on Second Reading, followed by the equally gruelling campaign for the carry-over, and we are very familiar with the guerrilla tactics of the hon. Members representing the Wirral, who, to be fair, have been steadfast in their opposition, and cunning in their tactics. As matters have progressed, however, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind their continued opposition, because argument after argument has been disposed of, and petitions have been withdrawn. Tonight, instead of substantial argument, we have heard a prolonged attack on the staff, the members and the executive of the Merseyside passenger transport authority. To some extent, that is a sign that those hon. Members are losing the argument.

The Bill is not about having, or not having, tolls. We have tolls. It is not about high tolls or low tolls—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not deliver a Second Reading speech or make general remarks; he must speak directly to the amendments.

That is exactly what I am endeavouring to do. Primarily, we are discussing a mechanism for the setting of tolls, which is what all the amendments are about, and the revising of that mechanism.

We suggest the replacement of a toll-setting system that allows each and every rise to be accompanied by a public inquiry with a system allowing the MPTA, with all its faults, to raise tolls in line with inflation—according to choice, and at the time of an annual review—and to raise them above inflation only with the consent of the Secretary of State. There are arguments, into which I will not venture now, about what the surplus should be used for; amendment No. 18 touches on that. We could argue about whether it should be used for transport purposes, for instance. What we are really arguing about in this context, however, is the change in the mechanism.

I understand that the proposed change is objected to principally because of a fear of economic damage—economic damage to individuals who, according to the hon. Member for Wirral, South, already spend as much as £600 a year on travelling to and fro, and economic damage to business, which has also been mentioned today.

Is there not a wider case than the "economic damage" case, which the hon. Gentleman and his constituents may wish to consider? Is there not the possibility of a cost to Merseyside as a whole in terms of opportunity?

In earlier debates Members have emphasised the issue of cultural loss. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) also mentioned cancer patients going to Clatterbridge. The main point people are making, however, is that there will be appreciable costs to the citizens of Wirral, or to the community of Merseyside as a whole, in terms of economic output.

Labour Members, fearing that economic danger, would obviously prefer to retain the right to a public inquiry, rather than an inquiry involving the MPTA; but it is difficult for Members who are not from the Merseyside area to grasp what is wrong with a local authority body keeping charges in line with inflation., and why each and every protest should end in a public inquiry. Anyone who has served on a local authority body knows that, in the case of capital and revenue budgets, fees and charges are reviewed annually—yet involving the MPTA and other such bodies in the process is apparently a reprehensible crime.

One of the attractive aspects of the Liberals' standing for election in Liverpool has been that over a period of years they proposed to increase council tax by less than the rate of inflation, and they now propose no increase at all. If such a stimulus to the good management of its affairs is good for the city of Liverpool, why is it not good for the PTA?

It may or may not be good, depending on the circumstances. I have to say that amendment No. 18 is redundant, because under the current legislation, if the MPTA judges freezing the toll to be in the interests of the economic welfare of Liverpool, there is nothing to prevent it from doing so. Trying to inhibit it from reviewing the toll annually or raising it in line with inflation is a different matter.

Can the hon. Gentleman give me a single instance of a freezing of the toll during its life of 70-odd years?

One would also be hard pushed to find an occasion on which council tax was frozen under past Labour administrations in Liverpool, but it can happen and it might happen.

6.45 pm

Whether or not the legislation is passed tonight, an indirectly elected body will still levy a tax. Voting the legislation out will not change that. However, that body can be extensively lobbied, and has some good professional advice and a degree of democratic accountability—a lot more than exists, for example, in the police authority, of which I was a member. Hon. Members need reminding that any plans formulated by the MPTA for funding need to go through the local transport plan process. The community needs to be consulted widely on them: bodies in the community and local councils need to be consulted.

The hon. Gentleman said that the tolls have always been there. They have; but the reason they were introduced was to pay off the debt of the Mersey tunnels. That has always been the priority. The hope was that, when that eventually happened, the tolls could go altogether. Now the tolls will be used not just to pay off the debt but to provide revenue for services not linked to the tunnels themselves. That is people's fear: the tolls will not be swept away.

I am not aware that people in Merseyside are counting on the tolls not being levied for their Christmas money. The hon. Gentleman makes the fair point that the original purpose of the tolls was to pay the capital cost and that the purpose is being changed. That is conceded. We support the change in purpose because it is a good one. It feeds into an integrated transport system, which I hope all hon. Members support; but however one views the MPTA and local authority bodies on Merseyside, they have no fundamental interest in wreaking economic havoc in the area. They have to take on board the interests of the citizens, who elect them in one way or another, and of local business, which they are compelled to consult regularly. The realisation that the MPTA has only a modest objective has led to a reduction in argument and to the general acceptance by most people that the legislation is reasonable.

The amendment appears to look at a cumbersome and indefensible old system, to look at a simple, better, more rational system that could be defended outside Merseyside, and to suggest instead a series of cumbersome new systems built around the five-year system, which I do not think anyone apart from the supporters of the amendment understand.

If it is streamlining the system, why does the Bill keep, as well as any new system, the old system?

I think that a clear preference is expressed in the Bill for the new system. The hon. Gentleman would not argue against it if he thought that the old system was going to persist. Amendments tabled by Labour Members are designed not to make it more workable but to make it unworkable and confusing and to cause delay. If we could assure you that the MPTA was the most efficient body on God's earth and that it was thoroughly accountable and ready to put its head on the block every year for election, you would not withdraw your opposition—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has so misunderstood my contribution and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman). We are prepared to see that delegation of authority. We are not trying to argue for the status quo and the bizarre procedure where, every time the body wanted to change the toll by 10p, we had to debate it in the House of Commons. We want it to behave responsibly in exercising that power.

The right hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I have cast aspersions on his intentions or those of other Labour Members. I am sure that their intentions are thoroughly honourable, that they would like to have a rational discussion of the Bill, and that they have done all they can to ensure that that takes place—but at no point do they deal with the fundamental concern. The Mersey tunnels have lost £10 million on average; they are not losing that at the moment but they have in the past. Unless the legislation is changed, that will still be a problem for most Merseyside Members.

I shall try to explain briefly the particular circumstances affecting my constituents that cause me to support the amendments, which seek to create delays, RPI minus X and then stability. My constituents have a special set of circumstances, and all those present accept that they constitute a large proportion of the users of the tunnels. Of course, my authority is not one of the shareholding authorities of the Merseyside passenger transport authority. It is argued that the fact that it is not a shareholder creates the logic of no representation without taxation, because it has not been responsible for the debts. However, the reverse is equally true: proportionately, it puts a huge amount of money into the authority, so it is entitled to a say.

In my view, legislation is required to bring about delay, RPI minus X and stability, thereby creating the five-year period. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport will acknowledge that section 1(1)(h) of the Local Government Act 1999, which brought about the concept of best value, refers to
"a metropolitan county passenger transport authority".
The Act describes it as a "best value authority" that
"must make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness."
The Act later states:
For the purpose of deciding how to fulfil the duty arising under subsection (1) an authority must consult … representatives of persons liable to pay any tax, precept or levy to or in respect of the authority".
During previous debates on the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have heard the argument from Members—including from some of my hon. Friends—that my constituents have no locus in this matter, but the law of the land says that they do. The 1999 Act also places a duty on this same authority to consult
"representatives of persons who … are likely to use services provided by the authority, and … representatives of persons appearing to the authority to have an interest in any area within which the authority carries out functions."
If you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in our capacity as constituency Members, are not representatives, or if our local authorities are not representatives, I honestly do not know to whom or to what the Act is referring. The position is clear cut: there is a statutory duty on the authority to consult either me—as my constituents' representative—or my local authority, or to create a mechanism. That is precisely why it is legitimate for me to argue in favour of the amendments that would create this delay, or for the specific utility formula described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), which I find slightly more palatable.

Following the privatisation of some of the utilities, we have witnessed the creation of the RP1 minus X formula and heard arguments in favour of building a stability process into the mechanism. I shall not repeat them, because I appreciate that colleagues are getting itchy feet. However, until I hear that a mechanism has been devised by the MPTA, in consultation with representatives of my constituency, it is perfectly in order for me to argue in favour of these sorts of delays.

One of the documents associated with the Bill—the promoter's statement—includes an interesting graph, showing future traffic growth. Unfortunately, we do not have the facility to display graphics in the Chamber—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) evidently believes that we should not have it, but never mind. The graph is preceded by a couple of paragraphs dealing with Merseytravel's logic for creating the RPI formula. The graph shows traffic flow forecasts both with and without the application of the formula. Precisely the sort of thing that should be discussed in consultation with the local authorities in my area and with me is the logic behind the changing graph—effectively a missing bit. There may be a perfectly sound logic to it. What follows in paragraph 13 on page 3 of the document is, to all intents and purposes, a congestion charge.

I am not opposed to congestion charging: far from it. I declare a minor beneficial interest, in that I am exempt from the congestion charge in London because my car runs on liquid petroleum gas. If the graph is intended to demonstrate the depressant effect of the clause in the context of congestion charging, it is an argument that should be further pursued. It should also be examined in the context of whether other congestion charging, in the city centre or in Birkenhead, could also apply in parallel. What effect would that have on motorists? We need to ascertain whether RPI in the clause or RPI minus X in the amendment is the legitimate way of proceeding, and I want such a discussion to take place.

We could examine the history of the debts and find all sorts of reasons why they should not have accrued, but I personally do not blame the current management, because the reasons are much more deep seated. However, in view of the consequences of creating a fixed formula by which the authority should proceed, I am taking the opportunity to plead with the passenger transport authority and the Minister to join up and ensure that the principle set out in clause 1 of the best value legislation to which I referred applies equally to the Bill when it becomes an Act. I stress "when it becomes an Act", because it is not my intention to filibuster the Bill and be called to order.

The three core principles set out in the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South cannot be understood in the absence of the proper explanation that I have just set out about the future traffic growth scenario. That scenario, shown up to 2027 in the graph, shows an increase of about 4 million vehicles on one assessment and 2 million on another, which amounts to a huge revenue-raising exercise in itself.

I am not giving way. How can that justify RPI standing on its own? I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in an earlier intervention—that it does not have to be RPI and could be something else. However, if it is to be something else, I insist that the Bill, together with best value legislation, requires the MPTA to consult people in my constituency in a proper manner.

I congratulate my colleagues who have spoken so well today on the amendments and I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). Amendments Nos. 27 and 28, which are supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), try to change the time from which indexation would run. The tunnels' tolls were last increased, as hon. Members will know, on 1 December 1999, and it is only right and proper—and appropriate—that the indexation of tolls should apply from 1999.

The amendments also ignore the management of the tunnels' future traffic growth, which would be far easier to review on a yearly basis, rather than on a quinquennial basis.

Of course I respect the sincerity of my hon. Friend's views, but I wonder why she claims that indexation should go back to 1999, when there is no evidence that the passenger transport authority is short of money. Why should the tunnel users be penalised when there is no demonstrable need for them to be so?

As I said, the last tunnel toll increase was in 1999. There has been no increase subsequently, which is why it is appropriate for the review to start in 1999.

7 pm

My hon. Friend will not wish to mislead the House inadvertently on that point. She will know, as I mentioned earlier, that there is an order in the offing to change the toll from £1.20 cash for a car to £1.30. That is happening as we speak, so the situation is not exactly as my hon. Friend suggests.

My hon. Friend is correct. If the House sees fit to give the Bill good passage, that increase might not be necessary. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the amendments at hand, and we are not here to debate that particular point.

Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 run counter to the annual review of tolls that forms part and parcel of a regulatory, inflation-related review of toll levels and, if necessary, increases. They are therefore not acceptable. In the permanently low-inflation society that we have enjoyed of late, a review of tolls every five years might be appropriate, but we may not be in a low-inflation society in five or 10 years' time. Management must seek to manage for all conditions. With a review every five years, the revenues would quickly fall behind costs, the traffic restraint effect of the tolls would be reduced, and users would face a large toll increase every five years, which would be difficult to plan for. An increase every five years is far more difficult to accommodate than an annual increase.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 24 are contrary to the Bill's proposed use of RPI, which is the right index to use, especially given the arrangements that are in place at the Dartford and Severn crossings—as was pointed out earlier.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill does not take precedence over existing Acts of Parliament, and that it must be read in parallel with other legislation, including the best value legislation?

Yes. I cannot think of any immediate reasons why it should not be treated in that way. However, I am minded that God took only seven days to create the world, whereas we have spent about 1,000 days on the Bill. For most us, it is complex in the extreme.

The Bill is complex and it has taken a long time to consider, but does my hon. Friend agree that the normal give and take in debates such as this would have allowed her to secure her Bill this evening? The problem is that the authority that she represents is not prepared to listen to or concede any of our arguments.

My right hon. Friend is being uncharacteristically ungenerous. The promoters of the Bill have tried to do everything in their power to meet and reassure those hon. Members who object to the Bill.

After Second Reading, the Bill went through to a Committee unopposed. That arrangement may not suit some hon. Members, but it is the only procedure available for consideration of a Bill such as this. There was also an opportunity for petitioners to advance their arguments and concerns, but they were withdrawn.

Order. May I gently bring the hon. Lady back on track? She should talk about the amendments.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 24 run counter to the annual review of tolls that form part of the principle of regular inflation-related reviews of toll levels and, if necessary, increases. Therefore, I suggest that the amendments are not acceptable.

Finally, amendment No. 18 is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and he will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that he proposes to insert a power to freeze toll prices when the tunnels' revenue needs can be met without a rise. The amendment also provides that the toll would be suspended where the tunnels' revenue needs can be met without toll revenue. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say whether that is an accurate understanding of the amendment.

My hon. Friend is right in her reading of that amendment, and of the others in my name.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I read amendment No. 18 with some interest, and I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend's remarks. He attempted to argue that tolls should be increased in ways other than those set out in the Bill. However, the second part of the amendment anticipates a situation that has never arisen, and which is never likely to arise. That situation is one where the tolls can be suspended if the tunnels' revenue needs can be met without toll revenue. I cannot envisage any circumstances in which that wonderful option might arise.

Again, I must be careful, as this matter relates to the other amendment in my name. However, it is possible that a stage could be reached when debts have been repaid and reserves accumulated. In those circumstances, the toll would not require a further increase until some time in the future, when additional revenue—over and above the amount previously achieved through tolls—would be needed.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. However, issues of maintenance and health and safety in the tunnels have an impact on the bottom line of the Merseyside passenger transport authority's annual accounts. In light of that, my right hon. Friend and I will be a long time dead before we reach the circumstances that he describes in the amendment.

If my hon. Friend is right and the situation that amendment No. 18 is designed to meet has not arisen in living memory and is unlikely to arise, what is the objection to the provision? The amendment is not mandatory but permissive. What is the harm in including it, in case—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) argued so persuasively—such a situation were to arise?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, but we have to deal with reality. The authority—the promoters of the Bill—tried to envisage all possible scenarios, but that scenario is highly unlikely so it has not been considered.

I want to deal more fully with the amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. It ignores one of the principles of the Bill, which is wrapped up in the RPI-related provisions—that the tunnels' tolls must be used as a means to manage further traffic levels. The first part of the amendment is unnecessary, given that the powers under section 92C—

Will my hon. Friend elucidate for the House how increasing the Mersey tunnels' tolls will control the flow of traffic?

Given my hon. Friend's expert knowledge and the expert advice that he has received, it would ill become me to offer him an answer. I think that the answer lies in his hands.

It seems that we are extending the Bill from a measure that would give authority to raise tolls to one that will control congestion. That is not in the Bill.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution but I must press on, as we have much more to do.

In conclusion, I have given substantial thought to the amendments and I do not agree with them. The Bill's provisions are acceptable and have been adequately debated.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 172, Noes 70.

Division No. 224]

[7:13 pm


Adams, Irene (Paisley N)Heath, David
Ainger, NickHeppell, John
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE)Hermon, Lady
Alexander, DouglasHill, Keith (Streatham)
Armstrong, rh Ms HilaryHodge, Margaret
Atherton, Ms CandyHolmes, Paul
Atkins, CharlotteHoon, rh Geoffrey
Austin, JohnHope, Phil (Corby)
Baird, VeraHowarth, rh Alan (Newport E)
Barrett, JohnHowarth, George (Knowsley N &
Sefton E)
Barron, rh Kevin
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim)Hughes, Beverley (Stretford &
Beith, rh A. J.
Benn, HilaryHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Bennett, AndrewIngram, rh Adam
Betts, CliveIrranca-Davies, Huw
Blackman, LizJamieson, David
Blears, Ms HazelJenkins, Brian
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Johnson, Alan (Hull W)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton)Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Bruce, MalcolmJones, Kevan (N Durham)
Burnett, JohnKeeble, Ms Sally
Burnham, AndyKeen, Ann (Brentford)
Burnside, DavidKemp, Fraser
Burstow, PaulKennedy, rh Charles (Ross Skye &
Caborn, rh Richard
Calton, Mrs PatsyKidney, David
Campbell, rh Menzies (NE Fife)King, Andy (Rugby)
Caplin, IvorKirkwood, Sir Archy
Casale, RogerLammy, David
Chaytor, DavidLaws, David (Yeovil)
Chidgey, DavidLazarowicz, Mark
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh
Linton, Martin
McAvoy, Thomas
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)McKenna, Rosemary
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V)McNamara, Kevin
Coffey, Ms AnnMallaber, Judy
Colman, TonyMann, John (Bassetlaw)
Cooper, YvetteMarshall, David (Glasgow
Corston, Jean
Cotter, BrianMerron, Gillian
Cox, Tom (Tooting)Milburn, rh Alan
Crausby, DavidMiliband, David
Cryer, Ann (Keighley)Moffatt, Laura
Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S)Moonie, Dr. Lewis
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs ClaireMoran, Margaret
Darling, rh AlistairMorris, rh Estelle
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Mountford, Kali
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Mullin, Chris
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Dismore, AndrewMorris, Dan (Wansdyke)
Donohoe, Brian H.Oaten, Mark (Winchester)