Thursday 19 May 2011
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Constitutional Reform (Wales)
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 495, and the Government Response, HC 729.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(David Jones.)
This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and it is a great pleasure to do so. We have sat on the Back Benches for many years and have been impressed by the loquaciousness of Front-Bench Members from both sides of the House; sometimes, they have entertained us for so long that we have not had a chance to speak. Time is short today, and because I believe it important that all hon. Members should have the opportunity to contribute, I will limit my speech to 10 minutes. [Interruption.] Other hon. Members are entering the Chamber as I speak.
The issue of constitutional change and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was the first subject considered by the Welsh Affairs Committee. It has been a great pleasure to work with all members of that Committee. The Select Committee system is one of the great unsung success stories of Parliament, and I wish that those members of the public who think that we spend all our time arguing with each other could see what goes on in a Select Committee. Despite the range of views, there is always room for compromise and agreement on certain issues.
Unanimously, members of the Welsh Affairs Committee had concerns about the changes to the constitution. The first issue that we looked at was the idea of holding a referendum on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections. We expressed our concerns about that, and made clear our opinion that the Government needed to take measures to ensure that the referendum ran smoothly—which, to be fair, it did. There were concerns about timing and the counting of the vote, but there were not many spoilt ballot papers and I am glad that the two elections went smoothly.
Many concerns remain, however, over proposals to reorder the boundaries in Wales and reduce the number of Welsh MPs by a significant number, probably about a quarter. There are concerns about the impact that such a change will have on the ability of Wales and the Welsh people to ensure that their voice is heard in Parliament. I accept the point, made on a previous occasion by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), that the reforms will be one of the greatest changes since the Great Reform Act. Ever since that Act, Wales has been strongly represented to reflect the fact that it is a small nation that needs to get its voice across. I must add—this would not have been in the report—that that argument is somewhat weakened by the establishment of a Welsh Assembly. Hon. Members must take account of that.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government continue to talk about greater democratic accountability and the reform of the House of Lords. Current plans are to get rid of 50 elected representatives from the House of Commons, including a quarter of Welsh MPs, and at the same time to introduce an extra 150 unelected Lords. There is no real chance of those reforms to the House of Lords going forward. Is the hon. Gentleman worried about having a greater proportion of unelected representatives and fewer elected representatives, and will he vote against that?
The hon. Gentleman wisely anticipates a point that I am about to come to. I will return to that subject; he may hold me to that.
Let me make an obvious point that the Minister may wish to deal with. Wales is geographically challenging when it comes to offering representation. By that I mean that many of its communities are cohesive because of the topography of the area, and certain valleys make obvious constituencies. They may never contain the requisite number of people, but it is not terribly wise simply to say, “That can constitute a constituency, and we’ll add a bit of the valley next door to get the numbers absolutely right.”
A place that may look nearby on a map will not necessarily be easy to access. We already have areas in which it is challenging to be a good constituency MP. Constituencies such as Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnorshire are very large—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) is in the Chamber—and presumably they will get even larger. That will pose challenges for the MP who represents such a constituency.
To some extent, we are allowing a bandwagon to roll that suggests that all Members of Parliament are lazy and do not have enough to do, and that we should get rid of a few of them, and give others an extra 10,000 constituents because that will produce a good headline in the newspaper. I hope that that is not the case, but I fear that as a profession, MPs do not stand up for themselves and nor does anyone else stand up for them.
MPs have a right to be treated in the same way as any one else in the country; when I read in the press that MPs should be treated like anyone else, I say that I could not agree more and that it is about time that we were treated the same in every respect. That means, however, that if someone changes our terms and conditions of work with the stroke of a pen, we should be entitled to a certain amount of notice. If we are to be given a lot of extra work—I take my role very seriously, as do hon. Members from all parties—it is only right that we should be given time to prepare for that.
I promised that I would return to the good point raised by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and the proposals to reform the House of Lords. I could understand some of the desire to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 were it not for the fact that at the same time we are increasing the number of Members of the House of Lords and are possibly about to elect them on an 80:20 basis—we will see whether that comes to pass.
It certainly looks as though it will be more expensive to manage the House of Lords. If we wish to act in a cohesive fashion, surely we should have considered the possibility of maintaining the number of MPs at 650. We could have reordered the constituencies so that they contained the same numbers of constituents, but we could also have ensured that they remained closer to their current state, without necessarily expecting MPs to do all sorts of extra work. I have no problem with working hard, but adding an extra 10,000 people to a constituency will present certain challenges. We should not jump to do that simply because it is demanded by the tabloids.
How many of my hon. Friend’s constituents have written to him asking for this matter to be treated as a priority?
In all truth, hardly any constituents have written to me about this matter. A few have written to me to say that they are shocked and horrified by the fact that one in four Welsh MPs are going to disappear. I had to write back and say that I am also surprised and concerned, and that unfortunately they will have to fly the flag for me on the issue as I dread to think what the Daily Mail would say if it thought that I was simply trying to protect my job.
Members of Parliament work extremely hard at the moment, and I have no problem with them working harder in the future if that is possible. I do, however, have a problem with the timing of the legislation and the way that it has been introduced very quickly. I was surprised that there were not more opportunities to debate the matter, although I do not entirely blame the Government for that.
At least one Welsh MP, who is not present today, seemed able, at the drop of a hat, to deliver speeches that lasted more than an hour and covered different clauses of the Bill. That prevented us from reaching those amendments that applied to Wales. I listen to “Just a Minute” on Radio 4; he could easily have done “Just an Hour”. To pay him a small compliment, I should say that he was quite entertaining and not many people can speak for an hour and be entertaining—at this rate, I will struggle to make 10 minutes.
He used to be a vicar, though.
I am not going to name the hon. Gentleman concerned and I shall let that comment stay on the record.
Another issue that concerned us when we conducted the report was the evidence that we received to suggest that much of the information that the Boundary Commission will work on is out of date or inaccurate. Too many people who should be on the electoral role have not registered for one reason or another.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean(Mr Harper), assured us that a great deal of work would be done to ensure that accurate numbers of people were recorded and that the information used to redraw the boundaries was accurate. I look forward to hearing from this Minister what work has been undertaken to ensure that everyone who should be on the electoral roll is on it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that voter registration is of particular concern along the north Wales coast, where there is a transient population?
I do agree, but the evidence that we had suggested that voter registration is an issue in all parts of Wales and perhaps particularly in some of the more urban areas. However, even if it is an issue in just one part of one constituency, it is a big issue, because this is about democracy and ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. How big the issue is I cannot say, but I look forward to an explanation from the Minister.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?
I will, but I am looking at the clock.
Will the hon. Gentleman not accept that a disproportionate—[Interruption.] I can’t speak. I have lost my—[Interruption.]
I will be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman again if he wants. I apologise, but I did not quite hear what he said. [Laughter.] He is more than welcome to intervene on me again.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a disproportionate tendency for poorer communities not to register? The boundaries should really be based on the best estimate of the number of people eligible to vote, as opposed to those who are registered, given that young people, ethnic communities, people in private rented accommodation and so on are under-represented.
I will not accept that. The evidence that we had was that significant numbers of people are not registered to vote. It was right that we asked the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who is responsible for the matter, to come back to us with further information about how that would be rectified, and he promised us announcements and assured us that action would be taken.
I do not think that we had enough evidence to say where the problem is most widespread. I certainly do not personally think that we should start redrawing the boundaries based on what is at best an educated guess as to what the problem might be—that is, having a look at constituencies and saying, “Well, that is not very affluent, and urban, so we think that X% are not registered. We’ll just redraw the boundary on that basis.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. A number of hon. Members have campaigned to increase registration for a long time, not just in relationto this issue. We have just had a census. Will the Electoral Commission be able to use the information revealed by the census in its calculations and judgments?
I should perhaps take it as a compliment that the hon. Gentleman asks me that question which probably ought to be asked of the Minister. I am tempted to say that I will check with my officials and write to the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I do not even have a researcher working for me in London, but I am sure that the Minister will reply for me in a few minutes’ time.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the work done by the Committee on Standards in Public Life during my period as a member of that Committee, which highlighted the failure of the Electoral Commission to exercise the powers that it already has to encourage consistency of registration throughout the country. Is not one of the points that we can agree on that the consistency of registration needs to be driven up in advance of the move, which all parties have supported, to individual registration, because the transition from one system to another is a potentially fragile period that could make a bad situation worse?
Yes, I think we can all agree on that. I can only say that in evidence the Minister promised that there would be very strong action to rectify the problem. It is probably a failing on my part, but I am not yet absolutely certain that I know what that action will be. I am sure that we will all be enlightened today.
The Boundary Commission said to us that it would look purely at numbers. When it gave evidence, it said that this was a numbers game and nothing else would come into the equation. It said that it would not look at the topography, the geography, the geographical size of a constituency, the local authority boundaries or anything else; it would look simply at the numbers. Since that evidence was given, I have detected a slight change in tone, in that the Boundary Commission is now talking about trying to match up local authority boundaries where it can. But this will be primarily about numbers.
Just to be clear, is the hon. Gentleman now talking about the intentions of the Boundary Commission, as distinct from the standards improvement that I was talking about in relation to the Electoral Commission? I think that the two points are consistent as long as we are—
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I fully accept the point that he made about the Electoral Commission. I am coming to the end of my allocated time now, but that is what the Boundary Commission has said. Its original evidence worries me. The messages that have been coming out since then reassure me a little, but we will still end up with completely different constituencies and with one in four MPs in Wales disappearing.
We have not stood up for ourselves; we have been afraid to stand up for ourselves. The vast majority of people in this Chamber and in the House of Commons work very hard and do a very good job. To some extent, we have been pushed into accepting the proposals, because we are afraid that we will be seen to be self-serving if we do not accept a large cut in our own numbers. It becomes much harder to justify cutting the number of MPs on a cost basis if at the same time we are going to spend large sums funding the House of Lords, whether they be elected, appointed or a mixture of both.
If the Government support the role of the Back-Bench MP in holding Ministers to account through forums such as the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, they also need to explain to us what will happen to the number of Ministers. I hope that if we are looking to save money by cutting the number of MPs, there will be consistency and that that will be applied to Ministers as well.
It is good to take part in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Your surname is a Welsh surname of considerable importance, so I am sure that you were interested to join us for this important debate. I agreed with every single word that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), my constituency neighbour, said. The only problem is that there are plenty of members of the Government who did not and, indeed, it may be too late for some of the excellent points that he made to be effective.
One of the good aspects of what is happening this afternoon is that the Welsh Affairs Committee was the only body—the only institution—in Parliament that dealt properly with the question of constituency boundaries in Wales. Hon. Members will know that, on the Floor of the House, the issue of Welsh boundaries was never reached. There was a considerable and excellent debate in the other place, but not in the House of Commons. Similarly, we asked the Secretary of State for a sitting of the Welsh Grand Committee so that all Welsh Members of Parliament could discuss the most important issue that affects our constitution, but we were refused.
When we couple that with the fact that we seem to have lost our Welsh day debate, despite my attempts and those of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) to ask the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that we did have a debate on Welsh matters, which has been the case in the House of Commons since 1944, we see that the opportunities that we could have had have been missed. Nevertheless, the fact that the hon. Member for Monmouth has initiated this debate is to be welcomed.
My right hon. Friend has made an extremely powerful point about the St David’s day debate. That has always been regarded across parties as an important element in the year. The suggestion that it can be ignored and pushed to one side by regarding it as Back-Bench business is wrong. It is surely business that should be dealt with in Government time, as has always been the case in the past.
Yes. It is ironic that the Secretary of State has written to the Backbench Committee arguing that there should be a Welsh day debate; I guess the right hon. Lady will now have to argue with her Cabinet colleagues and the Leader of the House to ensure that we have a debate to discuss Welsh matters on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Member for Monmouth did not touch on one excellent point made by his Committee, which is that there was insufficient time for the changes to be debated, and that no draft legislation has come before the House on this important matter. That contrasts entirely with the way in which the Government are dealing with the reform of the House of Lords, where there is a draft Bill, a White Paper, a Joint Committee and an attempt at consensus. None of those were the case for the Bill that we are discussing today. That is to be regretted, because my experience of dealing with constitutional matters, which goes back some years, is that such reform will never last unless there is a foundation of consensus. If they are seen to be wholly partial, which I believe the present proposals are, they will not be of lasting value to our country. The Welsh Affairs Committee was very wise when dealing with the matter.
I have a great deal of time for the Minister, and I welcome him to this debate, but it would be nice now and again if his boss were to turn up. I twice held the post of Secretary of State over a five-year period, and whenever we had important debates on such subjects I thought it important that the Secretary of State for Wales should attend. It has not happened in this Parliament. The only time that the Secretary of State for Wales has dealt with the issue is in reply to the odd question or two at Question Time. There has been no debate. Indeed, she stopped the Welsh Grand Committee debating the matter, so we do not know what she has to say about the fact that 25% of Welsh Members will be losing their constituencies.
Since the Welsh Affairs Committee produced its report, we have had a referendum; that has given legislative power to the National Assembly, and a new National Assembly and Executive have been elected and appointed. The impact of that on the role of the Secretary of State is, if nothing else, hugely significant. Even at this late stage, I still make the plea that, before the summer recess, the Welsh Secretary liaises with the Leader of the House so that the Welsh Grand Committee can debate the matter.
I will not take up much more time because other Members wish to speak, but I want to emphasise one important aspect of the Union. I am a unionist—with a small “u”—and I believe that the union of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England has proved successful. In Northern Ireland, it is for the people there to decide what to do—the principle of consent. We have seen dramatic changes in the last couple of weeks in Scotland and in Wales as a result of the elections. However, I fear that unless the Conservative party in Britain listens to the Conservative party in Wales—there is a big difference —we are heading for big trouble.
The Prime Minister talks about fighting for the Union with every fibre of his being. I understand that, and I do not doubt his sincerity for a second. However, what has happened to Wales’s constitution and its relationship to the House of Commons and Parliament over the last year shows that we must be very careful in what we do. As the hon. Member for Monmouth said, the reduction in the number of Members is not simply about the same number of MPs representing the same number of constituencies and the same number of electors as with English or Scottish seats. We have a United Kingdom that, by definition, represents the nations within it, and if we reduce the number of MPs in Wales by a quarter—a disproportionate reduction from 40 to 30—their influence in the House of Commons and in Government will be seriously weakened. We have made that point to the Government time after time, but they have shut their ears.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He makes a point that he has made previously on the Floor of the House and on the last occasion when we debated the matter in Westminster Hall. How does he get over the need for equality in terms of vote? Is it not the essence of democracy that everyone’s vote, wherever in the country it is cast, should be of equal validity? Is it not the case that, if Wales were disproportionately advantaged, that principle would be broken?
Wales can never be disproportionately advantaged. Even now, we have only 40 of the 659 seats. Whatever England wants to do, it can do through its Members of Parliament. It can overwhelmingly outweigh the Members of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland put together. There is never a case where that cannot happen.
With all due respect, the right hon. Gentleman slightly avoids the question. With the advent of the Welsh Assembly, Members of Parliament in England cannot do anything about the health service in Wales, nor about education, roads and the many other issues about which our constituents write to us.
We now touch on the other point that I intended to raise before concluding—the so-called West Lothian question.
There will be a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament—it will be a huge reduction, and it will weaken Wales’s voice here, even though it would not influence what happens in Parliament—and the answer to the West Lothian question will mean that Welsh Members of Parliament will be of a different type from the English MP. We will have different types of Members in the House, some MPs being able to vote on this and some on that. That is unknown in any other European country and, as far as I am aware, in the world.
A reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, a reduction in their rights, a constant grizzling and grumbling about the Barnett formula, the fact that people think that Wales does better than parts of England, the fact that we can do different things in Cardiff and Edinburgh and Belfast—student fees, for instance—which is what devolution is all about, and the way in which the House deals with Welsh business, with the Welsh day debate disappearing, all add to the case for separatism, and not for the Union.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He touches on an extremely important. I entirely agree that the West Lothian question is vital; in my view, it has not been properly addressed and should have been addressed prior to the establishment of devolution.
I want to deal with the question of the number of Welsh MPs. Did the right hon. Gentleman read the evidence given to the Welsh Affairs Committee by Professor Richard Wyn Jones? The professor said that it was “hard to imagine” how the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs could have a
“huge impact in terms of the Welsh voice in Westminster, particularly because, on the whole, Welsh MPs do not behave en masse as a single block.”
I believe that we do behave en masse in representing Welsh interests in the House of Commons. The fact that the Welsh Affairs Committee unanimously and across parties agreed on the matters raised by the hon. Member for Monmouth shows that there are many occasions when Welsh Members come together in the interests of Wales. I do not know the professor, but I do know that he is not a Member of Parliament, has not served in the House of Commons and does not know what can happen here. These people can have their academic discourses and theses and the rest of it, but the practicalities of politics are such that Welsh influence can be exercised here only by Welsh Members of Parliament.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He is giving a powerful discourse on the importance of having a Welsh voice in Parliament. Does he agree that it is absurd for Government Members to talk about the importance of equal representation across the UK and of reducing the number of MPs, while at the same time stuffing the House of Lords with their supporters?
That is because the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010 was born in a partisan way. Had it been dealt with like the legislation for reform of the House of Lords or other constitutional legislation, and a consensus arrived at, we would not have the present trouble. People simply see it as a means of cutting the number of Welsh Members of Parliament. The chances are that more Labour MPs are likely to be cut than those of other parties—we do not know; it could be the other way around—but we all ought to be fighting for Welsh Members of Parliament to have their say strengthened in a United Kingdom Parliament rather than weakened.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that the capacity of Welsh Members of Parliament to work together and speak with one voice was illustrated through the calling of a meeting—the first for many years—of the Welsh parliamentary party specifically because the Secretary of State was not listening to Welsh MPs speaking with one voice? Does he not think that there is very strong representation and strong teamwork across Welsh MPs and that the analysis quoted by the Minister is simply misplaced?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend and that was why a meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party was called.
I will give way in a moment. I just want to finish my point regarding the consensus among Welsh Members, including Welsh Conservative Members. I am beginning to feel that there is a belief among some Conservative Members of Parliament—I exclude all Welsh Conservative MPs from this criticism—that they would be better off with an English Parliament, without Welsh or Scottish Members of Parliament, and that does a great disservice to the Conservative party because both in Wales and Scotland it is still a powerful political force. We should all join together to ensure that Welsh MPs, whether they be Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat or Labour, can express their views in this place.
Another issue is that Welsh-speaking constituencies will find themselves with less representation in this Parliament than they would have done under the current system of the 40 MPs. Again, try to explain that to an English Member of Parliament. All of us know how important it is that Welsh-speaking Wales is represented here, not least because there are issues affecting the Welsh language that are still dealt with in Parliament.
I agree that we should have had the opportunity to debate this matter in full—whether it be on the Floor of the House, in a St David’s day debate or a Grand Committee debate. However, I am in disagreement with the right hon. Gentleman. When Welsh MPs come together on a particular matter, it does not matter whether we number 30 or 40. But if we started off with 30 Welsh MPs, could we honestly argue to be increased to 40? It seems to me that that argument just could not be made.
It will be the fewest number of Members of Parliament representing Wales since 1832. I am not convinced that 30 is a sensible and reasonable representation, which is what every country must have. I am not saying that each constituency should not be equally sized in terms of numbers, but an amendment was tabled in the other place that sought to ensure that there was a variation of 10% as opposed to 5%. A 10% variation would, in many ways, have solved the problems to which the hon. Member for Monmouth rightly referred in terms of our geography, our values, and our rural seats. If we had had that flexibility, the distorted seats that we will end up with in Wales would not have happened.
In conclusion, I do not want to see the Conservative and Unionist party becoming the Conservative and Separatist party, and I am saying that as a Labour Member of Parliament. There is an onus on all of us who represent Welsh constituencies to ensure that the Government listen and that we are not heading towards an English Parliament as opposed to a United Kingdom one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), I pay tribute to the Welsh Affairs Committee for being the only Committee that has debated this issue in some depth. I also pay tribute to its Chair for his succinct and articulate speech. I agree with many of the things that he has said.
The most important thing that has come out of this report is the haste with which all this is being done. Sometimes, when I sit in the House, it feels as though policies are being plucked out of the air. Under discussion is the biggest constitutional change in a generation. It is far bigger than the Welsh Assembly and the foundation of the Scottish Parliament. However, we, as Members of Parliament, have not had the opportunity to debate it. We have not had pre-legislative scrutiny, a Joint Committee to consider the change or, as my right hon. Friend has said, any consensus.
A myth has been perpetuated by the coalition ever since the expenses scandal. There is a belief that all politicians are wrong to want to come into public life. Suddenly, we are plucking solutions out of the air. It has been said that we need to change our electoral system and that we need to work harder. We have no empirical evidence on how hard MPs work, yet we are told that we need to work harder. Now we are told that people want fewer MPs, but such a change will fail without proper scrutiny and sufficient time.
I do not mind debating constitutional issues. When we talk about the West Lothian question, it always comes down to one thing—we are looking at it from the wrong point of view. We are looking at it from the point of view that Welsh MPs cannot vote on health or transport issues in Wales. If we use that logic, we could ask why London MPs are allowed to vote on policing issues when policing is devolved in London. It does not make sense. When we talk about any future devolution or any constitutional change, we have to consider the issue from the basis of the whole of the nation. We have to consider how devolution fits into the regions. However, we are not talking about that. This place is not the English Parliament, and it has never been the English Parliament. This place is the Parliament of Great Britain. When we talk about English votes for English MPs on English-only matters, we have to ask ourselves where in the constitution it says that this is the English Parliament. Perhaps I am being cynical, but the way in which this is being rushed through makes me feel that this is not a constitutional change, but political gerrymandering of the highest kind. It is based not on any rational argument, but on a policy of one size fits all.
We have already heard about rural areas, but let us look at some of the constituencies in detail. The old constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, which is now Dwyfor Meirionnydd—the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) in not in his seat at the moment—will probably be unmanageable. Montgomeryshire will be huge. Does that mean more money will be provided for the Members of Parliament who will represent those two constituencies? I do not think so. Where did this idea come from? Wales is not a special case, yet Orkney and Shetland and the constituencies covering the Western Isles of Scotland and Isle of Wight were pulled out? Why were they pulled out? We just do not know.
Lib Dem seats.
That is cynical, but it is what we have to think.
Sorry, Isle of Wight is a Tory seat.
I was working with my predecessor when the Government of Wales Act 2006 was debated. The 2006 Act stated that Assembly seats must be co-terminous with Westminster seats, but that has suddenly been thrown out of the window. It is as if the Government are saying, “Okay, we will just decouple.” Where we have an Assembly Member, the imperative is to build a close relationship with them and to work on issues such as health and education, but that will go completely out of the window. We will have a situation in which people will say, “Who is my Assembly Member? Who do I pass this on to?” This seems to be—for want of a better term—absolutely crackers.
We have already talked about the democratic deficit. Despite the fact that Wales represents 5% of the UK population, its constituencies will be reduced by 20%. Wales will send 25 fewer MPs here. Northern Ireland will lose some 17%; Scotland will lose 9%; and England, which is Tory dominated, will lose 5.5%. We have to ask ourselves why Wales has been disproportionately targeted. I wonder whether it is because we have a history of sending back Labour Members of Parliament. Will Swindon, which has two Tory MPs, be reduced to just one seat? Will other places, such as Cheltenham and Gloucester—I know Cheltenham quite well—be reduced to one seat? Will Tewkesbury, the Cotswolds and Cheltenham, which have three Tory MPs, be one seat? I wonder. We wait and see.
Cheltenham is a Liberal Democrat seat.
Sorry, I did not say Cheltenham. I should correct the hon. Gentleman. Cheltenham is a Liberal Democrat seat, but I said that the Cotswolds, Tewkesbury and Gloucester were Tory seats.
I am obviously an English MP, but I am proud to have spent most of my adult life in Wales, and I certainly consider myself a Conservative Unionist MP. Wrexham, where I brought my children up, has an electorate of 51,000, but Redditch, which I represent, has an electorate of nearly 70,000. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is fair?
That argument has been brought out all the way through. To use the American example, however, we do not hear people in California, which has 37 million electors, saying that they deserve more senators than Wyoming, which has 544,000.
The other thing about Welsh constituencies is that they are different. The Cotswolds, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham are all flat, so they can be put together. In Wales, however, we have rivers and mountains. As somebody once said to me at a Labour party grand committee meeting, “Islwyn was not created. It was given to us by God.” I do not know whether that is true.
That is true of all our constituencies.
Yes. Big mountains separate Blaenau Gwent from neighbouring constituencies.
Has the hon. Gentleman ever been to other parts of England, where there are mountains and rivers? The same argument could apply to those places. We have huge constituencies. North Yorkshire, for example, has constituencies that meet the criteria that he has described, but they are twice the size of many constituencies in Wales. Why is that different?
The point that I was coming to is that we have local links in Wales—communities are linked to each other and have common bonds. The hon. Gentleman represents an English constituency, but if he wanted to discuss the point, he should have made a speech.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Wales is, in essence, a small country next to a very large country that is 15 times its size? If we want a sustainable Union and a respect agenda, we should remember that Wales has always had slightly more MPs than England. That is the fundamental point: tearing up the Union is the cost of gerrymandering a sustainable Conservative Government. Wales is a small country sitting next to a big one, so we should have a few more MPs. That is all this is about.
That leads on to my final point about the policy overall. Perhaps I can look at the issue from a wider angle and step outside Wales for a moment, if you will allow me, Mr Davies. We are a nation state, and what seriously worries me about this exercise is that it is based on figures rather than communities. In that respect, I am glad that I followed my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, because he knows about the situation in Northern Ireland, where wards and constituencies must strike a fine balance and could cause major problems. However, we have had no scrutiny of any kind, so these issues have not come out.
The coalition has hung on to its belief that people distrust politicians, but when people voted no for AV, they dispelled the myth that it was constitutional reform that we needed; we actually need to reconnect with people. Forcing through the proposed changes will mean more disconnect and people being more removed from politics, and that is a dangerous game. I therefore finish by paying tribute, as I did at the beginning, to the Welsh Affairs Committee, which is the only Committee to have looked at this issue properly.
Order. Two more Members are seeking to catch my eye. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.30 pm, so if Members could show some restraint, that would be helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) is always a tough act to follow. I was hoping to make a hard-hitting speech, but I fear that my contribution might be somewhat timid in comparison with his. I want to concentrate on two specific issues. The first, on which all parties in the House have concerns, and which has been the focus of the debate so far, is the number of MPs who serve the people of Wales in Westminster. The second is the opportunities that the proposed Calman Cymru process may offer democracy in Wales.
Let us be in no doubt that the reason why the UK Government have introduced their proposals to cut the numbers of MPs from 650 to 600 is purely partisan. In nullifying the Celtic bias, the Prime Minister’s aim is clearly to enhance his electoral prospects at the next general election. We should ignore the spin surrounding equal-sized constituencies: if they undermined the Tory party’s electoral prospects, they would not be on the table.
I must admit that it is strange, as some Labour Members said in their contributions, that these changes are being introduced by the Conservative and Unionist party. Reducing Welsh representation in this place by a quarter will inevitably severely undermine the influence of Wales in this Parliament. The Westminster Parliament represents four distinct nations, and its make-up has always reflected that fact to avoid it becoming dominated by English representatives. Central Lobby, with its murals of the patron saints—St David, St Andrew, St Patrick and St George—is a reminder of the historical role played by the Westminster Parliament.
Many Members will undoubtedly be surprised to hear me make such points, because there will be no Welsh representation here at all if Plaid Cymru’s ultimate aim is achieved. However, as long as so many key political fields remain reserved, there is a role and a need in this place for Welsh MPs, and particularly Welsh Plaid Cymru MPs. [Interruption.] I am glad to see some Members nodding.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making such an important point, which I fully agree with. For as long as Wales remains part of the United Kingdom, he and other Welsh Members should of course be allowed to take their places here. In the same way, people who did not agree with devolution or the Welsh Assembly, and who still have questions about it, have every right to sit in the Welsh Assembly if they are elected to it.
I am grateful for that, and I will stick the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement in my next leaflet.
I am not against reducing Welsh representation in the House of Commons as a point of principle. However, any reductions should take place only after the devolution of political fields of responsibility. I do not, therefore, accept the argument that the successful March referendum justifies reductions in the number of Welsh MPs. The referendum did not devolve extra fields of power, but merely secured sovereignty over currently devolved fields. If we were to have the same devolved fields of power as Scotland, however, I would see the case for reducing the number of Welsh MPs.
For the remainder of my speech, I would like to concentrate on the UK Government’s proposed Calman process for Wales and its constitutional implications. I seriously hope that the Wales Office is not proposing a rerun of the Scottish experiment, which was a stitch-up by the Unionist parties and has now backfired spectacularly. The government of Scotland Bill that followed the Scottish Calman process lies in tatters because of the Sewel convention. There is no way the majority Scottish National party Government in Scotland will accept a Bill that totally ignores their views on the way forward for their country. I therefore hope that the Calman Cymru process will be fair, open, transparent and free from political influence.
To date, much of the debate surrounding the Welsh Calman has been about finance. The Holtham report is unlikely to be bettered, so the best course of action for the UK Government would be to accept its detailed recommendations. Reform of the Barnett formula should be a precondition for any further financial changes, but I am concerned at the noises that have come from the Treasury to date. That will be a major challenge for the new Welsh Government, and all their rhetoric about standing up for our country will be seriously tested on this single issue.
However, I welcome the fact that the Calman Cymru process will reopen debate about the Government of Wales Act 2006. In particular, we will have the opportunity to revisit the gerrymandering carried out under the Act by the then Labour Government in Westminster. The section introduced in 2006 to prohibit candidates from standing in regional lists and constituencies should be overturned. A similar ban exists only in Ukraine, and it is high time that we in Wales joined the rest of the democratic world.
The Calman Cymru process is also an opportunity to revisit the electoral make-up of the National Assembly in time for the fifth Assembly. My personal preference would be for us to increase the membership of the National Assembly to 80, as advocated by Lord Elystan-Morgan. Those 80 Members should be elected by a single transferable vote system. When the government of Wales Bill, which follows the Welsh Calman process, comes to this place, I will call for amendments to that effect, unless such provisions are already included in the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is any appetite in Wales for yet another prolonged period of navel-gazing?
I am grateful for that intervention, but we have the Calman process and, following questioning last Wednesday, it was confirmed that such issues will be debated. The Bill will be an opportunity to address grievances that some of us have with the current settlement.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments with great interest. I agree with some of them, but I am doubtful about the appetite in Wales—or the UK, for that matter—for introducing any other systems of proportional representation. It is daft to argue that the overwhelming vote against AV was because people wanted STV. People want a first-past-the-post system, so would it not be a good idea to have 60 or 80 AMs elected, two per constituency, by first past the post?
I totally disagree with that, of course. When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was a Bill before the House, I argued for the referendum to be held on STV, not AV. That was about a vote for the Westminster Parliament, and my preference for developing democracy in Wales is a plural, proportional system. I will get to that point when I conclude my speech.
During the passage of the 2011 Act, I welcomed the clauses that decoupled the Westminster and National Assembly boundaries; it was common sense to include them in the Act. My colleague the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) had a sparring session on BBC Radio Wales in the very early hours of Sunday morning on that issue. The Labour party was vehemently opposed to the decoupling; its preference was for coterminosity. From the point of view of organising local party structures, I can see the argument. They would be a total nightmare to organise locally with different boundaries for the Westminster and Welsh elections.
It is not only about party organisation. Coterminosity is important for talking to borough councillors and chief executives, and the managers of local health services and housing associations. It helps us to make an impact as MPs with local civic society. Surely we should keep that.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Coterminosity is favourable.
Given that, as a point of principle, Labour is opposed to decoupling and the Tories to PR, one way to achieve consensus might be to re-adjust the National Assembly boundaries to be coterminous with the new Westminster boundaries. Such a reform would have the added benefit of being more proportional. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I am grateful for the opportunity to comment briefly on one or two of the issues that have come up in the debate, which has revealed the fragile nature of our discussions about democratic arrangements.
It is a mistake for proportions and figures during a general election to be the only issues that determine the size of constituencies or which constituencies are represented. In the House, we are referred to by our constituencies rather than by our personal names, and that reflects the fact that we are accountable to an identifiable constituency of people; that is where the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), in making the case for single transferable vote or another proportional system, misses the point. He made a powerful case, with which I agree, about the different countries of the UK being represented disproportionately to reflect another element in democratic accountability. That is something that we ignore at our peril.
If we look merely at arithmetic and not at accountability, we will end up with the sort of situation that we have in the European elections. MEPs already represented large constituencies—the size of something in the order of seven or eight Westminster constituencies—and they now represent people in the whole of Wales. By and large, following an election, more or less the same people are returned—albeit in a different order, so someone is higher up the list—and the situation is the same with the regional lists for the Welsh Assembly.
It is important to look at the relationship between MPs and AMs. One or two hon. Members have touched on that point. During the first period of the Assembly, my AM, who stood down at the last election, was an incredibly close colleague because we served and were accountable to the same constituency; my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) made that point. As we have seen in Wales, it is difficult enough to ensure that the relationship between AMs and MPs is adequate, strong and effective, because many of our constituents do not know who has which responsibility—they are not terribly interested; they just want a response. An MP and an AM working together can give very powerful representation in this place, and that is extremely important.
Accountability is an important part of democracy. Democracy cannot be served only by artificially constraining the number of electors. Of course there needs to be proportionality and a system needs to be as sensible as possible and as near to a norm as is practical, but it also needs to respect the nature of communities and democracy. In the reorganisation of local government in 1973, the legislation referred to an important principle, which was the starting point for building up the wards that councillors represented. It was to look at how people identify themselves and within what community, and to identify the wards and councils only as an aggregation of the communities that the local people identified. That principle should apply in constituency representation too, but by and large it will go out of the window as the new constituencies are identified and developed for new parliamentary representation.
On how to deal with the number of AMs, I argued for a different arrangement from the one that the then Secretary of State, Ron Davies, brought forward, which he had argued for in opposition. That system was the one that we have—of 30 Members and top-up regional arrangements. The disadvantage is that, in elections, more or less the same people are likely to be returned in more or less the same order.
Is not the real issue with the list system the fact that it is a closed list? At the recent Assembly elections, electors in Wales could not even choose a name from the list, but simply voted for a party. That is a dereliction of democracy.
The alternative to that, which would also be simpler, would be regional lists by party; how people voted in constituencies would determine who was elected. People are very confused about having to vote a second time and they are not sure what they are voting for, although the hon. Gentleman will have been pleased to note that they overwhelmingly voted for the Labour party across Wales.
I suggested a system of two Members per Westminster constituency elected by alternative vote, which would have given roughly the same degree of proportionality as we have now, but retained the accountability to a constituency. I hope that we do not lose that accountability for Wales, that a method is found of ensuring that the Assembly has the appropriate number of Members and that we do not lose for ever—even if we do lose it for a short period—the coterminosity between Assembly and Westminster constituencies. It is a strength of the system that I want retained and, if we lose it for a period, I want it to return as quickly as possible.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
I will start by saying that it is slightly unusual for me to speak on the Front Bench today, as I am following the precedent of the Minister when he was in my shoes, as it were, in Opposition. Like me, he was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee in Opposition. It is the Committee’s report that we are debating today and therefore I can say to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who is the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, that I add my support for the way that he chairs the Committee generally and particularly for the way that he chaired it while this report was being produced. He brought us to a point of considerable agreement across all parties and today he elucidated very well the arguments that we had during the weeks that we debated the Bill. I was less certain about the transformation that he underwent during his speech into a shop steward for MPs from all parties. I certainly will not go so far as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) in putting the hon. Gentleman’s commendations on my election literature. Nevertheless, the way in which he spoke up for MPs today is very welcome.
The Bill represents what the Committee referred to as a “profound change” to the constitution of the UK Parliament and particularly in respect of Wales, and we have heard that spelled out in different ways by different Members today. Reasonable Members of Parliament cannot argue with that conclusion, because any change that diminishes by fully 25% at a stroke the political representation of a country is a profound change. Any change that breaks a parliamentary protocol in respect of the representation of one country in a Parliament that has been established for almost 200 years—as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), that protocol was established in the Great Reform Act of 1832—is a profound change. That protocol established an over-representation, if you like, for Wales, but it is an over-representation that is designed to reflect the asymmetrical nature of the Union that we have between Wales, Scotland and England, and to offer some protection and insurance that the junior partner in that Union—that is, Wales—does not have its voice drowned out by the leviathan—that is, England —on its border. I believe that the changes that we are discussing potentially threaten the Union, and any such change is absolutely a profound change.
One of the great disappointments for the Opposition during the all-too-hasty passage of the Bill was the seeming inability of the Government to acknowledge the arguments that many people from across the House—on the Tory side as well as on the Opposition side—were making. For the Opposition’s part, I feel that we acknowledged that there is an important argument to be made about equality and fairness in representation being observed and implemented, to the extent that that is possible in representation between different constituencies. We acknowledged that that is an important and long-standing priority.
However, that is not the only consideration or priority that ought to have been considered by the House. It was profoundly disappointing that the Government singularly refused to acknowledge that there might be other considerations, and I suspect that we will hear something similar in a moment from the Minister. The principal one among those other considerations is the importance of giving insulation and protection to the junior partner in this asymmetrical union that we have, and the corresponding danger of changing that balance and the voice of Wales being singularly diminished in Westminster.
The Committee’s report was quite prescient in giving warnings about those dangers. We have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) that it was prescient in its warning that the changes being proposed could lead to a diminution of trust in politics. The Government told us that the rationale for pursuing the Bill was, in many respects, to try to rebuild trust in politics, which we all accept has been damaged in recent years. However, the Opposition fail to see how removing politicians further from the electorate and increasing the gap between electors and elected will help to rebuild trust. If anything, a rational observation is that it is likely to do the reverse and increase people’s mistrust in politics, especially when people look at these changes and understand—as we in the Opposition understand—that they are motivated by a partisan rationale.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and my right hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Torfaen, who are both former Secretaries of State for Wales, and indeed other Members have already discussed the next point that I want to make; in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen spoke with great power about it. It is that we are deeply concerned about the impact that this change will have on the Union.
Nationalist politicians, with their variable success at the recent election, are undoubtedly emboldened in some respects by the change that is being proposed. For all that we hear the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr talk about the importance of representation in this place, I think that nationalist politicians are emboldened by the extent to which the Bill and some of the other things that we have discussed today are putting the debate about the Union at the top of the agenda. The Bill and the other issues that we have debated are throwing into question the constitutional settlement that we have understood for the last 200 years—indeed 300 years—and challenging us to think about what we mean by the future of devolution, how Wales is to be represented and what balance is to be struck in the light of devolution.
I agreed with the Minister when he said in an intervention that perhaps we had not fully thought through the implications of devolution. We now need to do that and to think holistically about all these issues instead of doing what I fear is precisely the Government’s intention, which is to look at them piecemeal and for party advantage.
I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen that, for all the Prime Minister’s avowed intention to fight with every fibre of his being for the Union, we are hearing far too much from Conservative Back Benchers who are resentful of Wales. They are resentful of the different decisions that are being made in Wales and of what they perceive to be the parts of the UK, including Wales, that are both politically hostile—they do not elect Conservative candidates—and economically dependent, which is the bit that really worries me. There is an ugly spirit at the back of those concerns that Wales is getting more than it is due and that Welsh needs are being over-accommodated, both in terms of political representation and the economy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a worrying and increasing number of Conservative MPs who take the view that having separation of both Wales and Scotland from England would be a price worth paying to have a perpetual Conservative Government running England?
I share some of the concern about that issue. I do not think that my hon. Friend is overstating the case, because we have heard far too many noises off from Conservative MPs that lead us to fear that many of them think that breaking up the Union would be a price worth paying. I certainly do not share that view and I do not think that any Opposition Members do either.
Another area that we have touched on today and that the Committee’s report was again prescient about is the impact on the National Assembly of the changes that are being proposed. During the passage of the Bill, we were repeatedly told that breaking the link between elections in constituencies in Wales for the National Assembly and elections for Westminster effectively meant that the National Assembly would be unaffected by the Bill. However, it is only a couple of short weeks since the Bill’s passage and already we have heard the Secretary of State for Wales, in response to a question put by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in Welsh questions last week, entertain the notion that a Calman-style commission in Wales might look beyond financial matters and indeed might look at the nature of the elections to the National Assembly and the make-up of the electoral districts for the National Assembly. That is worrying. It is looking like another broken promise from the Government if we are now going to see the National Assembly being so directly impacted by the Bill.
I ask the Minister to try to clarify today what was implied by the Secretary of State’s response to the hon. Gentleman’s question last week. If the Minister is unable to tell us exactly what that commission is going to look at, can he at least tell us whether it will look at alternatives to the current voting system? The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr slightly misrepresented me when he said that in our discussions last week I said that we had to stick pretty much with what we have got. I did not say that. What I said was that we certainly should not shift instantly if we are to consider these matters through 30 list members and 30 first-past-the-post members. The rejection of the alternative vote last week raises the question of whether we ought to look more seriously at first past the post and I think that there is an opportunity for us to put other alternatives on the table, such as having 60 members, two per constituency, in a first-past-the-post system. There might be a significant amount of agreement across the House for that as an alternative system.
My hon. Friend knows that I entirely agree with him on that issue. I hope, however, that he, and the House, understand that any substantial constitutional changes to what the people voted for in 1997 would require not just huge consensus but a referendum. I hope that the Minister will indicate that understanding in his response.
That point is very well made, and I look to the Minister to clarify it. We would certainly hope to see it clarified under any possible Calman-style commission.
My final point is a reflection of some of the remarks made earlier. The contrast between the 2011 Act and the constitutional changes that it portends and the House of Lords draft Bill that we saw only this week could not be starker: pre-legislative scrutiny, the establishment of an independent commission, a Joint Committee, a draft Bill—a serious look at what will be a dramatic, radical and historic change to the governance of our country.
No less historic a change for Wales was the announcement, dealt with in eight scant days on the Floor of the House, of a quarter reduction in the number of MPs from Wales. That measure was railroaded through for what I fear were squalid, partisan and political reasons, and I am sure that the people outside this place will be concerned that the Government could apply a similarly high-handed gerrymandering approach to the potential changes to the National Assembly electoral boundaries.
May I, too, say what a huge pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies? I join other Members who have commended the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to the Committee’s work. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) pointed out, I was a member of the Committee throughout the previous Parliament. I know how important it is in scrutinising the role not only of the Wales Office but of other Whitehall Departments whose work touches on Wales.
The debate today is about the Select Committee’s report on the implications for Wales of the Government’s constitutional reform proposals. I suggest that it is something of an after-the-event debate—considerably after the event; the report was, of course, published as long ago as October last year, the Government’s reply was issued in January, and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which was the focus of the report, was enacted some three months ago.
Nevertheless, it is useful to have the debate, if only to point out that some of the concerns highlighted in the report, such as the fact that holding a referendum and an Assembly election on the same day would be extremely challenging, have proven to be unfounded. In fact, I think that everyone agrees that both those exercises in democracy were completed without undue difficulty.
It is true that the sky did not fall in, but it is also true that the jury is out on how the election was administrated. Election officers have told me that there was a great deal of confusion. In my area, for instance, there was an 80% turnout of postal votes for the first referendum and a 70% turnout for the second one, and that was seen as being due, in part, to confusion. Does the Minister agree that we should look more closely at that, and learn lessons?
We always need to learn the lessons of electoral processes, and it is anticipated that the Electoral Commission will issue its report on the conduct of the polls in July this year. As far as I can see, the exercise was carried out successfully and it proved wrong those who anticipated that the people of Wales would not, like a well-known American President, be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
The referendum part of the election was run by the Electoral Commission, so that body is conducting a review of its own administration of the election. Is that the right way forward?
I would be very reluctant to call into question the integrity of the Electoral Commission. It is the right body to report on electoral processes in this country.
The 2011 Act provided for the referendum to be held on the same day as elections for the Welsh Assembly and for local government in England. Does the Minister think that the Deputy Prime Minister now believes that that was such a good idea after all?
I would be very loth to second-guess anything that the Deputy Prime Minister might think.
The focus of the Select Committee report was the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is now an Act. I reiterate the point that was made throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament: the principal thrust of the provision is to ensure fairness in our electoral system. I have heard what Opposition Members have had to say about that, but it is inherently unfair that the vote of an elector in one part of this country should carry greater weight—in some cases, much greater weight—than that of an elector in another part of the country.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) made the point that he has made on previous occasions—that the so-called Welsh vote has to be protected. I very much share the view of Professor Richard Wyn Jones, a very distinguished academic whom I know, who says that this situation is something that has grown up over the years. In evidence to the Select Committee, he made the interesting point that in 1543, when Welsh Members of Parliament were first admitted to this place, the population of Wales was approximately 7% of the combined population of England and Wales and Welsh representation in terms of Members of Parliament was also approximately 7%. He said that there
“wasn’t any kind of formational deal that Wales should be over-represented”.
He added that since then there had been a “drift” in Welsh representation in this place. He went on to make the fair point that in the scheme of things, it is hard to see how a reduction from 6% to 5% of MPs could make that much difference to Welsh representation here, particularly when it is borne in mind that the overall number of Members of Parliament will be reduced from 650 to 600.
Another important point that he made, and which I put to the right hon. Member for Torfaen during his contribution, is that Welsh Members of Parliament hardly behave as a bloc. I heard what the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) had to say about the Welsh parliamentary party, but I have to say in all frankness that at that party’s most recent meeting, representation by Conservative Members was rather light, underlining the fact that Welsh Members of Parliament do not behave as some sort of single coherent body.
I really do not understand why the Minister makes that point, as it suggests an element of disengagement on the part of some Conservative MPs. At that meeting, one of the Minister’s hon. Friends made a very constructive intervention, commenting that the meeting had been more constructive and consensual than he had expected.
The Member who made that point was the only Member of the Conservative parliamentary party at the meeting—[Interruption.] I know that the right hon. Gentleman is disappointed that more Conservative Members of Parliament did not attend, but that underlines the fact that party politics, across the political divide, prevail just as much in Wales as in the rest of the country.
The Minister quotes Professor Wyn Jones all the time, but he fails to remember that Speaker’s Conference after Speaker’s Conference indicated that there were special circumstances to ensure proper representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom Parliament. Why does he think, for example, that there are separate boundary commissions for Scotland and Wales? They are separate countries in separate circumstances. I think that the professor is on his own on this one.
He is not, because I happen to agree with him, which is precisely why I quote him so extensively.
We must return to the fundamental point: it is inherently and conspicuously unfair that a vote cast in Aberdeen, for example, may have a different weight from a vote cast in Aberystwyth. The Act proposes to introduce the element of fairness. Nevertheless, to a large extent—
Does the Minister not accept that for nearly 150 years, his party agreed with the point that I am making? The Conservatives agreed that not just Scotland and Wales but large rural areas should have proper representation. What has happened in the past year goes completely against what the Conservative and Unionist party has said for 150 to 200 years.
It is fair to say that the Conservative party has evolved considerably over the past 150 years, as no doubt has the Labour movement in this country. If we were set in aspic, we would never make any progress.
As I said, the Act will introduce fairness into the system. I am conscious that the Chairman of the Select Committee will wind up this debate, but I feel that I must touch on one or two points made by various right hon. and hon. Members, who I hope will forgive me if I do not mention them by name. One important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth related to individual voter registration. It is certainly vital that as many people as possible register to vote and are encouraged to do so. We feel that the move to individual registration is likely to increase the number of people on the register.
We are trialling data matching throughout this year in several areas, including Cardiff. We are comparing the electoral register with other public databases to find those who are eligible to vote but missing from the register. The aim is to tackle under-registration among specific groups.
Yes, but this will be the last time.
The Minister is right to emphasise the importance of promoting electoral registration. However, the registers for the coming parliamentary review will be based on the past year’s electoral registration numbers, gathered before the important pilots that he mentioned. If the Government delayed, considered electoral registration further and put resources into it, given the profound changes that we are seeing, surely that would lead to a better result, because more people would be registered and we could support more confidently the boundaries that we are debating.
The trial will continue throughout this year. The pilots will enable us to see how effective the data matching is and which data sets are most useful in improving the accuracy of the register. The chair of the Electoral Commission said in her evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that introducing individual registration will enable the commission to create focused programmes to improve registration rates among specific communities. That is particularly important because, as the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, some sections of the community are certainly under-represented, and we must make an all-out effort to get as many of those individuals on the register as possible.
I am afraid not. I have been quite generous already.
The future of the Union was mentioned. It is big stuff for me to cover in the next two minutes.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am afraid not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
The issue is time.
It is, I am afraid. I think that most of us in this Chamber—with the honourable, or possibly dishonourable, exception of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)— are Unionists, and we do not want the Union of this country damaged. Therefore, the West Lothian question must be addressed, and the Government are committed to doing so during this Parliament.
As the hon. Member for Pontypridd said when agreeing with something that I said earlier, perhaps we are doing things the wrong way round—perhaps the exercise should have taken place before devolution was instituted in this country—but the issue must be addressed. I can think of nothing that would do more to endanger the Union than to perpetuate a sense of grievance on the part of certain Members of this Parliament and certain large sections of this community about a perceived lack of fairness in how they are treated.
Will the Minister give way?
I shall not, as I have little time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand. Over-representation is a problem, and introducing fairness is a good way to start to address it.
To conclude, this debate has been an interesting exercise—but essentially a historical one, as I said earlier. The Select Committee has published its report, but since then, the caravan has moved on. As I said earlier, the AV referendum was held with little difficulty, as far as we can establish, and we must now look to the future. The Boundary Commission’s exercise is continuing, and it will result in provisional proposals in September this year and a final report to the Secretary of State by October 2013.
The new parliamentary constituencies will be in place by the time of the next general election, and appropriate arrangements will be made for the next Assembly election in 2016. All proposals will be taken into consideration— the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr made an interesting suggestion, as did the hon. Member for Pontypridd—before Assembly constituencies are determined.
I reiterate that the fundamental issue addressed by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 is fairness.
I regret that I will not. The constitutional reforms introduced by the Government will ensure that fairness is embedded in the system, which should be as welcome to the people of Wales as it is to the people of every other part of this United Kingdom.
I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up. If you will forgive me, Mr Davies, I will skip the usual format of trying to sum up what everyone has just said.
The debate was about to get very interesting. There is an issue of fairness and of ensuring that all votes count, and the Committee accepted that in its report. What concerned us was the speed with which things were being done and the possible consequences of doing them so quickly while reducing the number of MPs; it would have been feasible to create equal constituencies without reducing the number of Members of Parliament.
It is not entirely fair to suggest that this is gerrymandering. It will certainly advantage the Conservative party, just as it advantaged the Labour party to keep the status quo for the last 15 years and to create a Welsh Assembly that was always likely to be dominated by the Labour party or a combination of left-wing parties. That has prevented Conservatives in Wales from enjoying a Conservative-run health service or education system, although it has not prevented Labour MPs from writing to English Ministers to tell them how the health service and education system in England should be run. That is bound to cause a grievance among English MPs.
I think that most of us here want to remain part of the Union. If we do, it behoves us to remember that we have responsibilities as well. We cannot simply go on pouring out comments about the English doing this or that, constantly ragging the English nation and sending Members of Parliament over to vote and speak on issues that are decided entirely differently in Wales without expecting some reaction. There will always be consequences.
The Union is a fragile thing. I welcome the fact that so many Members here, including me, share a commitment to it and work in an honest and open way, but some Members do not. They have a right to a different point of view, but I think that all of us want England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to work closely together, and I take some comfort in that.
Severn Crossings Toll
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2010-2011, HC 506, and the Government response, HC 837.]
Everyone seems to be leaving the Chamber, which is sad because very few issues cause more rows in pubs and constituency surgeries in south Wales than the Severn bridge. You might expect me to declare an interest at this point, Mr Davies, but one of the bits of pub trivia that came out of our inquiry is that I do not need to do so, because neither of the Severn bridges starts or ends in my constituency. One ends in the constituency of Newport East, and the old Severn bridge starts and ends entirely in England before joining the Wye bridge. It would, therefore, be difficult for some of the Members who have left the Chamber to demand that the old Severn bridge be partly administered by the Welsh Assembly Government in Wales, because it does not actually come into Wales at all.
The issue for all of us is the price. It has confounded us in constituency surgeries throughout south Wales and the M4 corridor. It is worth setting out some of the background. The second Severn crossing was built by a consortium of four companies, which became Severn River Crossing. Not only did they build the second Severn crossing, but they took on the debt of the old bridge, which amounted to about £450 million. The deal was that they could collect just under £1 billion, which was linked to inflation, and that, once that money had been collected, the bridge would revert to public ownership. At present, that is expected to happen in around 2017.
It became clear to us during the course of our inquiry that, no matter how angry we might get over the level of the tolls and no matter what impact we might think it has on the economy, there is very little that any of us, including the Minister, can do about it. This is a matter not of the Minister deciding what he wants to set the toll at for any given year, but of straightforward contract law that would be backed up by the courts. The deal was struck in 1992 between the then Government and private companies, and there is no flexibility in it whatsoever.
Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was to see the Welsh Conservatives pledge during the Assembly elections to freeze the tolls immediately?
I must admit that that was a surprise to me. It would, of course, have been feasible to do it, but a Conservative Government in the Welsh Assembly—which was, sadly, not to be—would have had to pay back all the money to Severn River Crossing. That would have been a significant amount of money. I am not sure whether the policy applied to heavy goods vehicles—I believe that it applied just to cars—but it would still have been significant. The point is that SRC could not simply have been told to freeze the tolls without compensation being paid, because its shareholders would have had every right to take the Welsh Assembly Government to court. There would have been some practical difficulties in implementing that policy, because I presume that it would have been up to the Welsh Assembly Government to negotiate the rate directly with SRC. I am not sure how far down the line the negotiations went. It would have been feasible, but it would have been a challenging proposition. Sadly, it will not come to pass, because of the efforts of the hon. Lady’s party.
The point is that the Welsh Assembly Government had no locus or power to set anything. These things are set by the UK Parliament, which cannot be changed now. Surely the Government can announce, however, not that we can change the toll now, but that in 2017 the toll will go down to £1. If they did that, it would trigger inward investment now, not then, because people would plan for the future. They could establish their business now in south Wales, so that after 2017 their costs would go down. That is what the Government should do.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated some of my comments.
Before I turn to 2017, we should have a quick discussion about the impact on the economy. There is, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, mixed evidence about this. There is no hard evidence that the current level of the tolls is having a detrimental impact on the economy. Let me quickly add, however, that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, which most of us would accept, particularly in relation to areas such as haulage and tourism. I worked extensively in the haulage industry and the situation is not all bad, because a haulage company in Wales competing for business that is local to south Wales has an advantage over an English company in Avonmouth, which would find it harder to compete. Similarly, shopkeepers in towns such as Chepstow might be concerned that, if we got rid of the Severn bridge tolls, it would lead to even more people crossing over and going to Cribbs Causeway, when the current numbers are already causing a problem.
Having said all that, I think that there is an impact on the economy. I do not think that it is as bad as some people have suggested, but there is a negative impact. To give some evidence for that, I remind Members that the previous Government froze the Humber crossing tolls because they felt that the level of those tolls would have made the impact of the economic downturn worse. It is sad that, having decided to do that on the Humber, the previous Government did not feel that they could make the same commitment to the River Severn. If any Opposition Members want to tell me why Wales was discriminated against in that fashion, I would be more than happy to hear their comments.
What we need is hard evidence so that we can put a proposal for 2017 to the Government. I welcome the fact that the Welsh Assembly Government, who do wonderful things on occasions—they are not all bad; like all things, they have advantages as well as disadvantages—are conducting an in-depth assessment of the impact of the current level of tolls on the economy. They will hope to get evidence from the Department for Transport. It was our strong recommendation that the DFT work with the Welsh Assembly Government on this and offer them every assistance and co-operation, and I very much hope that it does.
The hon. Gentleman has said that the Labour Government did not act on these issues. He might not remember this—it was a long time ago—but 20 years ago I served in the Committee that considered the Severn Bridges Act 1992. The Welsh Affairs Committee report says that the deal that was struck in 1991 was a poor one. One of the reasons why was that it could not easily be changed. That, as much as anything else, is the real reason why we are in the situation we are in today.
The right hon. Gentleman has far more knowledge of what happened in 1991 than I do. However, if we had asked for a more advantageous and flexible Bill from our point of view, I presume that SRC would have asked for more than £1 billion. I was not party to the negotiations, but I imagine that it would not have simply rolled over and given way that easily—I do not know. What I know is that it is all up for grabs after 2017 or thereabouts. It is important, first of all, that we have hard evidence about the impact on the local area.
The hon. Member for Swansea East—
West. We have not had the boundary changed yet.
I apologise. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) made a point about the potential level of the toll after 2017. I think that he will agree that it was a back-of-the-envelope calculation, and I am sure that it can be corrected. I shall address the figures to which he has alluded. The current annual revenue from all the tolls is about £76 million a year. The current cost of maintaining the bridge is £15 million. I estimate, therefore—this is purely a back-of-the-envelope calculation—that it would be feasible to levy the toll at about £1.50 and still be able to maintain both bridges. Obviously, there may be other factors that the Welsh Affairs Committee has not been made aware of.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I suspect that the Minister is going to make me aware of a few of those factors. I accept that we may want to put money aside for a future bridge or for future major works to be carried out on one of the bridges. I invite the Minister to confirm, however, that it would be possible to set the toll at a significantly lower level than its current one and still be able to maintain both bridges in good working order.
I do not want to pre-empt in anyway my later comments, but my hon. Friend may notice that I am not a Treasury Minister. Treasury Ministers do not do things on the back of a fag packet. Whatever we do must be evidence based and correctly calculated all the way through. We are not going to rule anything out or anything in. It will be very much a Treasury matter, as well as one for the Department for Transport.
I appreciate that clarification. However, we are about five or six years away at most from the estimated date of handover. By that time, I would expect people in the Minister’s Department or the Treasury to be thinking about what we will do next. I understand that the current plan for the next five years after 2017 is that the tolls will continue at the current level in real terms and that the money will be set aside for a sinking fund.
To date, no one has even talked to SRC about who is going to man the toll booths or do the maintenance. It surprises us that more work has not taken place and that there is not greater clarity about what is going to happen. Certainly, at some point, the bridge will be in public ownership, both bridges will be paid for and a large profit will be being made by someone. However, it is not being made at the moment and, in fact, the evidence suggests that SRC will not make that big a profit. SRC’s shareholders are not a load of people in top hats somewhere in the City of London; they are anyone who happens to have a private sector pension. We often forget that when we talk disparagingly about shareholders.
At some point in the next 10 years, a large sum of money will be being made from what is basically a tax on the people of south Wales and the west country of England, which is not acceptable. We have a right to know what is going to happen and to absolute transparency, so that when the bridge becomes the Government’s property, we can open the books and see how much is being used to maintain both bridges and how much is simply going back into Government coffers. We could then put aside some money for future works.
I want to squash a couple of myths that are prevalent in the pubs of Monmouthshire and possibly elsewhere. The first myth is that the whole thing is owned by the French Government and that the money will all go back to France. I do not know where that came from, but it is obviously completely incorrect. The second myth that has persistently dogged us over the past few years in Monmouthshire is that the old Severn crossing is falling down and at some point will be closed. We have found absolutely no evidence for that either, and we are assured that that is not the case.
We look forward to finding out a little more about what will happen on the happy day when the bridge goes back into public ownership and ceases to be paid for. We also look forward to a day when the tolls can perhaps be set at a level that is fair, that enables the taxpayer not to lose out because the bridges will be maintained and that is beneficial to all of us who live and work in south Wales.
It is good to see the Minister here to respond to the debate. I thought that his evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee was frank and that he seemed very engaged in the matter. As someone who has been talking about the Severn bridges for some time, I appreciate that.
Like the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), I obviously have a strong constituency interest in sorting out the issues surrounding the Severn bridges. I commend the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he chairs the Welsh Affairs Committee and for deciding that this should be one of the first inquiries following the election. The evidence that the Committee has received backs up what I have heard from my constituents for many years, which is that the crossings are too expensive, inflexible and inconvenient.
As I said in a Westminster Hall debate last year, until very recently people could not pay by credit or debit card, and they cannot pay online or travel off peak. There are no concessions for people who live locally. Yet the tolls continue to rise year on year, even though the service is outdated. I do not apologise for raising the matter again because, although Severn River Crossing has a responsibility to its shareholders—as has been mentioned—I feel a responsibility to my constituents, who are the customers. I would like Severn River Crossing to pay a little more attention to the customers.
I, too, congratulate the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), on covering the topic, which is certainly important to my constituents. I want to take up my hon. Friend’s point about a permanent system not yet being in place for credit card payments. It seems mad that, in 2011, there is not yet a permanent system in place for people to pay their toll with a credit card. That is absolutely bonkers. If someone goes to the bridge on a Friday evening, there are massive queues. Often people arrive there and they do not have enough cash. That has happened to me on my way home. I have not had enough cash and I had to get off at the service station beforehand to get some. Getting cash in that way can cost money, as people might have to use one of those machines that charge. Would it not be much easier if commuters, hauliers and others could use a credit card easily to cross the Severn bridge?
Order. I ask for interventions to be brief.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There is no permanent solution to that at the moment. I travelled over the bridge last Thursday night, and although I believe that a temporary measure is in place, there is still no permanent fixture. I am sure the Minister will correct me later if I am wrong on that. I will move on to that issue later.
The Committee heard anecdotal evidence about the economic impact of the tolls on businesses and commuters, and it welcomed the Welsh Assembly’s commissioning an assessment of the economic impact of the bridge’s operation. The Government response refers to new business investment in Wales. I want to add my own anecdotal evidence. Haulage companies in my constituency, and I suspect in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), are being severely impacted by the tolls, as the charge is not borne by companies just over the bridge. For example, Owens Road Services is a long-standing Welsh company with a base in Newport. It represents 1% of the total heavy goods vehicle traffic on the crossing and pays £200,000 a year. Toll increases keep coming off its bottom line. The Welsh logistics industry is paying a charge that is not paid by competitors in England. I speak weekly to commuters—for example, teachers—who travel to Bristol. They are suffering every day at a time when hours are being cut, wages frozen and fuel prices are high.
As the hon. Member for Monmouth has said, what came out loud and clear from the Committee’s inquiry is that the contract negotiated with Severn River Crossing is very restrictive and that the Secretary of State’s powers are constrained by that. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I still want the Government to pursue the issue of a toll freeze. I took the Minister at his word when he said it is difficult, although as we referred to earlier, there are people in his party who see the matter slightly differently.
On 6 April, which was just a few weeks after the Minister gave evidence to us, during the Assembly elections, the Welsh Conservatives pledged that
“a Conservative Assembly Government will freeze Severn Bridge Tolls cars at their current level. The freeze will be brought in immediately.”
As an aside, there was no mention of business vehicles, which has not gone down particularly well. I am genuinely bemused by that. Has the Minister committed to doing that or do the Welsh Conservatives just not know that the bridges are not devolved and that there are contract limitations? I would be grateful for an answer on that later.
Presumably, if the hon. Lady and I were fortunate enough to win the lottery, we could ask Jim Clune if we could pay for everyone to have a toll freeze. Although the matter is not devolved, there would have been nothing to stop the Welsh Conservatives doing that had they formed a Government. Sadly, they did not, but maybe next time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Apparently the Assembly would have had to pay £29 million to Severn River Crossing. I am loth to take him up on his offer to commit to paying that if we win the lottery, just in case.
I would like the tolls to be frozen and greatly reduced when the bridges come back into public ownership in 2017. I fully support the Committee’s assertion that the toll could be reduced to a fifth of its current level to approximately £1.50, while allowing the crossings to remain self-financing. We recommend that the Government should seek to reduce the level of the toll at the earliest opportunity.
In the meantime, I want the Minister to address some of my parochial concerns. On car sharing, commuters who share a car cannot share the TAG. I was under the impression that that issue had been sorted out some years ago and dealt with by Severn River Crossing. However, it appears that it has not. Will the Minister please pursue that with the company in the interests of cutting congestion? We are urging people to car share, so we ought to be making it easier.
On off-peak tariffs for business, one issue that businesses have always raised with me, which is an extremely good point, is more flexible pricing. Effectively, off-peak travel for business would offer incentives to travel at certain times of the day and night. That would reduce congestion, save emissions and help companies at a time when they are struggling.
May I also ask the Government at some stage to examine the issue of a reduction in tolls for people who live locally? As someone said earlier, maybe that could be done on a postcode basis. Such a scheme has been introduced on the Dartford crossing. I believe that it is easier to do that on the Humber and Dartford crossings, as they have no concession. I am sure that the Minister will put me right on that if I am wrong, but in the longer term, could we look at doing that in Wales?
On the thorny issue of modern technology, I believe that one of the witnesses, who gave evidence to the Committee referred to not being able to pay by modern methods as a “mild national embarrassment”. That the issue was shown on “Gavin & Stacey” has been well-reported. I am glad that the temporary system is in place, although I believe that the permanent machines have not been installed yet. The company pledged to the Committee to do that within the first quarter of this year, so I would be most grateful for an update on progress.
Given the long, painful years it has taken to get to the stage of being able to pay by credit and debit cards, which appeared to be a fairly simply issue, may I urge the Minister to get to grips with the future of the bridge post-2017, as the hon. Member for Monmouth has mentioned? The Government response to the Committee’s report states:
“it is too early to be setting a future strategy for the Severn Crossings at this stage, including future toll prices and concessions.”
With the current Parliament due to expire in 2015, this is not an issue that can be left until another election, because businesses and commuters in my constituency need certainty.
I welcome the Department’s commitment in the Government response to provide regular updates to everybody on future strategy. I also thank members of the Committee, as one of the local MPs, for the time that they have spent on this issue. It has been a valuable exercise in providing fresh impetus to sorting out the future of the bridges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I want to say just a few words about the importance of the Severn toll crossing. At this point, I should probably declare an interest. I seem to have used the Severn bridge crossing more in the past year in order to visit my daughter in Cardiff than I ever did in the 18 years I lived in Wales.
We have seen inward investment to Wales decrease massively in the past 20 years. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, 20% of the UK’s foreign investment was in Wales. That figure is now just 6%, which makes it crucial that we make Wales a competitive place to do business. We all recognise that the only way that the second toll crossing was ever going to be built was with private finance, and that the company running it needed to make a profit for its shareholders. We will, however, in the not too distant future, as my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said, see it return to Government hands. We will then have an opportunity to help businesses out.
I hope that the Minister is listening and will take note of some of the points raised in the debate, and in the report from the Select Committee, of which I am a member. We all understand the dire financial situation that this country is in, but to enable Wales to attract its fair share of investment we have to ensure it is on a level playing field with the rest of the country. I know there are discounts to be had from the south and London, but the only realistic way into Cardiff in a car is to pay the £5.70. Otherwise one has to go miles out of one’s way, incurring extra fuel charges, and we all know how costly that is. Not only are our visitors paying more, but they are less likely to visit some parts of the country than others. We must make sure that money coming into Wales is as evenly distributed as possible.
Also important, of course, is the part that tourism plays in attracting people into Wales. As hon. Members have mentioned, many of us remember watching the television programme “Gavin & Stacey” when Smithy is trying get across the Severn toll crossing and cannot find the right money. That programme has, of course, made Barry Island famous. I have to confess that on my last visit to Cardiff I ventured down to have a look around and have a go on the slot machines. Seriously though, we need to do all we can to boost tourism and attract more visitors to stimulate the economy wherever we can.
As the Prime Minister said at Question Time on Wednesday, we are part of a United Kingdom and every part of it matters. I also urge Severn River Crossing to look again at fitting the toll with the latest technology to enable it to collect the money. Near my constituency of Redditch, the M42 is fitted with that technology, which is so much easier and more efficient. In conclusion, I suggest that the Minister continues his good work and pushes for a deal that will benefit both business and tourism alike, and for a fairer Severn toll crossing.
I would like to make a few quick comments before my voice breaks again. The importance of the report, as I have already suggested, concerns inward investment and prosperity for Wales. The simple fact is that if we want to attract inward investment into Wales, multinational companies in particular need to be able to assess, years in advance, the likely costs they will face in networking European markets. I urge the Government to make their intentions clear, so that that can be done.
I share the view of the Welsh Affairs Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). We should aim to minimise the toll, subject to operational and maintenance costs, and look again at off-peak fares in terms of traffic management and the balance between car and van traffic and larger trucks—the balance between inward investment and trade versus tourism. That is not easy, but we should make a general statement of intent now. We want to see a substantial reduction in a tax on trade and inward investment into Wales. I respect the point made by the Minister from a sedentary position asking why Labour did not do that. If that was a mistake, then that is a reason not to repeat it.
As we approach 2017, it becomes more and more important that we make those signals—generally at first, and then specifically down the road. The Welsh Affairs Committee is focusing strongly on the various parts of inward investment—visiting Germany and so on. The crossing is a crucial artery for investment into Wales. The electrification of the railways is also crucial. People will know that I have stood up for the electrification of the railways from Cardiff to Swansea, as well as to Cardiff. The railway line and the road are the two main axes for getting trade into Wales.
The point was made that there is some uncertainty about the economic impact. The Welsh Assembly is supposed to be doing an assessment of that. The fundamental economic analysis is obviously that this is clearly a tax on trade and inward investment. Taking on board what the Chair of the Committee said, it works both ways. The fact is, however, that it is not worth it for people in Newport to pop over to Bristol to do some building work there, because of the toll. The toll impedes the development of ambitious small businesses. A company opening its headquarters will look at the marketplace. Clearly, more people live on the English side of the River Severn than on the other side. In terms of cost-management, they are better off locating on the English side. That stands to economic reason, so there is a dramatic impact.
I was disappointed by the evidence we heard from Ieuan Wyn Jones. He was meant to be in charge of economic development for Wales, but happily he is not any more. He seemed to have the idea that some of the reduction in price, which should go to motorists, inward investors, and the traffic of people and products, should be taxed away and spent on other pet projects in Aberystwyth, or wherever. That misses the point that the fundamental driver of the Welsh economy is trade.
As it happens, my father used to be in charge of economic development in the Wales Office some time ago. There was an analysis at the time to show that Wales is not just one great economy. Essentially, it is two economies—south Wales with the south-west, and north Wales with Liverpool. A moment’s thought would lead us to that conclusion. The study made clear the interdependence of the south-west and south Wales. Therefore, having a brake or a tax on that relationship harms both economies. We know from the first principles of economics that trade is beneficial, so it is not a good idea to say, “Separate these two and they won’t have to compete with each other.” Trade is mutually beneficial. Again, I urge the Minister to encourage the Treasury to signal the direction of travel and to give us greater clarity.
In places such as Swansea, which I represent, we have the enormous growth of the university as a research and development, technologically driven entity with global reach and attraction. Companies such as Tata Steel, Rolls-Royce and now Boots the Chemist have moved their research and development to Swansea, and they are looking to develop products with a global reach. Part of that is being able to link to European networks and beyond, and part is the cost of moving products and people between Wales and England and beyond.
The issue is not a minor one, with people who happen to live in Cardiff getting annoyed; it is about our strategic position on inward investment and the development of the Welsh economy, which is so important for all of us. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Thank you, Mr Davies—I have just realised that one third of the Members in the Chamber are called Davies.
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and I ought to form a Gwent national party because I agreed entirely with everything he said when opening the debate. Again, the Select Committee is to be commended on its work. Interestingly, in our earlier debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales said that it is quite rare for Members from Wales to get together and agree on everything but, within minutes, we have an example of doing precisely that. We agreed on the importance of the bridge—we welcomed the building of the second Severn crossing in the early ’90s—and on what is likely to happen in 2017, when the concession runs out and the Government take over the running of the two bridges.
I remember the first bridge being opened and I also, as I said in an intervention, led jointly for the Opposition on the Severn Bridges Bill in 1991—so long ago, in fact, that half the membership of the Bill Committee is dead and the other half, except for me, is in the House of Lords. It was interesting reading the debate because, although we agreed with the building of the second Severn crossing, which was absolutely necessary, there were concerns about the nature of the deal and of the concession. I am glad that the Select Committee referred to that in its report:
“Our inquiry demonstrates the inflexibility contained in the Severn Bridges Act 1992 and the concession agreement between the Government and Severn River Crossing Plc. This has made it difficult for the Government to respond to the current economic climate and freeze the toll”—
whether the Government of which I was a member or the present Government, because both would find it difficult to change the intricate concession and deal agreed 20-odd years ago, and we must look to the future on that.
I agreed very much with my hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on how new technology has not been introduced on the bridge that I will cross in five hours’ time. All of us who travel to Europe, France in particular, and to other countries have seen the most sophisticated technology—number plate recognition or using credit cards and so on—but none of that has happened on our bridges into Wales. Frankly, that is a matter of public scandal. All Governments are to blame for not putting pressure on the company to ensure that.
The other issue that was raised in 1991 was that there ought, we believed, to be local inquiries every time the tolls were to be increased substantially. That proposal was defeated in Committee; it would have been a good idea, but it did not happen.
I read with great interest the Select Committee’s questioning of the top officials of Severn River Crossing plc. I entirely understood the questions posed by the Committee, especially those of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), but I failed to understand the answers—perhaps that was my fault—and the finances surrounding the end of the concession are as murky as the Severn itself. I do not know who, if anyone, will make a great deal of money in a few years’ time, but I do know that when we look at the figures, the running costs are £15 million a year and the income is £72 million a year. The debt is almost paid off and no new technology has been put in, so one wonders a little why those figures do not quite add up.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Does he agree that it was very strange that, during those deliberations, the company was unable to provide us with its likely profit at the end of the concessionary period?
It was amazing. I hope that this debate and any consequent Government policy might lead to discussions with Severn River Crossing plc so that we can get to the bottom of what, frankly, I could not understand.
An impact assessment has been started by the Welsh Assembly Government. There is now a new Executive in Cardiff—I believe that the Minister is Huw Lewis, but I might be wrong—and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), when he winds up our debate, agrees on the great need for collaboration between the Welsh Assembly Government, the Department for Transport and, if we can persuade it, Her Majesty’s Treasury. In a few years’ time, there will be a huge change in how the bridges are operated and financed, and we must start preparing now.
This, again, has been an interesting and worthwhile debate—certainly worth while from my perspective, not least because it gives me the opportunity to say that I, too, find it utterly inexplicable that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the former Secretary of State for Wales, for Northern Ireland and for Wales again, is not in the other place. However, it is a delight for us to be able to enjoy his wisdom for a few more years in this House.
The Severn bridges are a hugely strategic part of the infrastructure of Wales. The Select Committee report was extremely timely because it addressed, as we have not seen addressed in the House, that question of their strategic importance. Furthermore, important post-2017 decisions, to which hon. Members referred earlier, beckon whichever Government are in power when the bridge comes into public ownership.
I hope that the Government learn from some of the things revealed by the report, which affords us an opportunity to be taught about how important infrastructural developments, such as the second Severn bridge, might be financed in future. That development came at the outset of the debate on private finance initiatives—very different PFI structures are put in place for infrastructure these days—but, clearly, lessons can be learned, in particular about the contractual nature of the agreement made between the Government and whoever is developing things.
The report gave us the opportunity to explore, although not really get to the bottom of, the economic impact of the bridge tolls on Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) talked at length about the inevitable economic consequence of what I think we all agree is a high toll, obliging people looking to trade and travel across the bridge to commit extra resources. That must, at some level, be an impediment to developing trade between Wales and England and to developing the Welsh economy.
The policy of the previous Welsh Government was to seek responsibility for the bridges at the end of the concessionary period. Can the hon. Gentleman inform the people of Wales what the policy of the new Welsh Government is? If the rhetoric of standing up for Wales is to be believed, surely gaining control over the main supply route into Wales would be a main objective.
That is a question to be addressed to Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Labour First Minister in Cardiff. I am delighted that he will be in charge, because I shared some of the misgivings of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West about the evidence that we heard from the man who was hitherto responsible for economic development—the leader of Plaid Cymru.
Having said that, I think it is important that we look to the Government—had the Labour Administration remained in power, we would also have done this—to forge a better understanding of and a joint interest in how the bridge is managed post-2017. I am sure that the Minister will reassure us that the Government will consider carefully how to ensure that the Assembly has a full role to play in that, because its interest is clearly considerable. On another matter, I hope to hear positive noises from the Minister that the Department for Transport will carefully consider the economic analysis that the Assembly is undertaking, so that we may better understand the impact that the bridge tolls have on trade, tourism and transport in Wales.
The report shed some light on some of the issues—particularly the murky economics of the bridge—but not as much as we would have liked, although it provided greater insight into how it was paid for initially, what the financial structures were, and how the company proposes to make money. It will hand the bridge back when it has taken £1 billion in revenue. The report did not give us total satisfaction in explaining the volume of profit that the company will make at the end of the day, and I agree that the opacity was deplorable. I hope that one of the lessons we learn is that future financial deals leading to the building of important pieces of infrastructure should be more transparent. Given the Minister’s candour when addressing the Committee, I am sure that he will agree.
We had a bit more clarity about ownership of the bridge. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) was correct in saying that the French have no interest in it, because I think they have a bit. More importantly, the Americans have a big interest, because the banks that ultimately sit at the back of ownership are, by and large, American. We have a bit more understanding about the concession agreement and its shortcomings. Lastly, we had significant insight into the reason for the prehistoric technology on the bridge, the principal reason being the concession agreement; into the lack of incentive for the company to invest—it would trim its profit; and into the Government’s inability to mandate the company to invest to move the technology into the 21st century.
I want to ask the Minister some questions about that. In his forthright evidence to the Committee, he referred to the technology, rather colourfully, as having to
“queue up in some kind of Soviet system”.
I agree entirely. He also, interestingly, hinted that he proposed to reopen negotiations with Severn River Crossing to explore how investment might take place in the period before the bridge becomes publicly owned, so that taxpayers are not entirely saddled with that bill. However, he acknowledged that if the company invested, the Government, under the terms of the contract, would have to compensate it up front for making the investment and incurring the loss.
I would like an update from the Minister, today if possible, on where those negotiations are and whether the Welsh people may expect changes and further improvements in the technology before 2017—or whether, as I fear, the public purse will end up bearing the cost of taking the bridge into the 21st century and thereafter. I encourage the Minister to be as robust with Severn River Crossing as he normally is in his exchanges in the House.
The Minister may be able to help us with the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and the pledge that the Conservative party made at the election—to offset the cost of freezing the toll to the tune of £29 million in the unlikely event that they won the election in Wales. Thankfully, they did not, but many of us were surprised at the time that such a promise could be made. It prompts the question whether there were conversations between the Conservative-led Administration at Westminster and the Conservatives in Wales that allowed them to make that statement or whether, as he implied from a sedentary position earlier, the Minister knew nothing about it. Perhaps he will clarify that.
I suspect that the Minister did not know much about it. If he did, will he confirm that, irrespective of who won the election, the Assembly could not unilaterally have agreed to pay Severn River Crossing the money to make up the shortfall if it had broken the current contract to fix the toll increase annually, predicated on the retail prices index? Surely renegotiation would have been necessary between the Government at Westminster, who are one part of the contract, and Severn Severn Crossing. Perhaps the Minister will clarify how it would work if the current Assembly Administration wanted to pursue a similar policy. Would that be possible? Would the Government be open to that, or is it off the table?
As the Minister is here, I have a final and slightly cheeky point. I thank him on behalf of the people of Wales for the announcement of the U-turn on the coastguards. He is the Minister responsible for that, and it is welcome. I urge him to think again about the Driving Standards Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Perhaps we could have some U-turns on those.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in this ground-breaking debate. I wish I had been the first ground-breaker this afternoon, but the Under-Secretary of State for Wales got in first. It is a pleasure to be here, and to respond to the Select Committee’s genuinely excellent report. I had the honour and privilege to give evidence to it early in my time as a Minister.
When I looked at the history of Ministers in my Department, I wondered whether I would be here today. The average life expectancy of a Transport Minister is eight months, and I have been in the post for a year and a day. I am either doing something very wrong, or the Prime Minister has forgotten about me.
To be honest, I was pleased with the report in many ways, not least because it removed some of the myths to which my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), the Committee Chairman, alluded. I will try as best I can to respond to the debate, instead of reading out a speech that was written for me, and I will do that as a Minister for the United Kingdom.
The two bridges are national assets, and owned by no one, except that the second one is temporarily owned by the company that was set up to facilitate it. The freehold land that it sits on is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Transport, and the toll booths in Wales are also his responsibility. The analogy is interesting. I have a map that shows the boundary between England and Wales. The original bridge is solely in England, and the new bridge, as it is still called, is predominantly on English soil and water.
That is unimportant, because the bridges are national assets, and I fully respect the concern of the Welsh community, particularly in south Wales, about the importance of the bridge and its efficient working. I also respect the concern about the contract that was entered into when I was still a fireman; most of us here, although not me, were very young in the early days of the private finance initiative, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth alluded. With hindsight, would we be in such a position today? Of course we would not, whether or not the previous Government were still in place.
As colleagues who know me are aware, I am not hugely party political. Nevertheless, I could not help thinking that we had 13 years of a Labour Government and although 2015 is approaching, we are only one year along from when the previous Administration were in place; the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) alluded to that point from a sedentary position. What work did the previous Administration do to bring in some of the technology that I will talk about in a moment, and what is going to happen at a later date, possibly in 2017? I will touch on some of those points in a moment, but the issue depends on the funding that the users put into the bridge as we go forward.
The Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee is a good friend of mine, but he alluded to a tax on Wales. In reality, it is a tax on anybody who uses the bridge. There is an extensive haulier community in my constituency, and I am the Minister responsible for roads, freight and so on. Hauliers from England, Scotland and Ireland, and those from continental Europe, who also pay the tolls, might take issue—although perhaps only fractionally —with the comments made by the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I understand, however, how emotive the subject is.
Let me touch on some of the points raised. I will not repeat the brilliant history lesson provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth—again, I am praising the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee—because there is no point going over it again. We all know where we are, and many hon. Members know the situation better than I, despite what I have learned over the past year since taking this position. I, too, sat in queues at the tolls for many years when Wembley stadium was being rebuilt and the wonderful Cardiff stadium was used. I sat in that stadium on many occasions, supporting the England rugby team. I will leave the results for others to comment on.
For me the key questions are where we are now, what we can do in the short term and what is the long-term proposal for the bridge. I listened to earlier comments about technology. It is ludicrous that in the 21st century, technology is only just arriving at the toll booths on the crossing. However, some of the comments made during the debate about what can and cannot be used at the tolls were not factually correct; if my officials are wrong, I apologise. The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden)—I apologise if I pronounce some of the constituency names wrongly; my Welsh is not brilliant and as a cockney lad I was not taught it at school. I mean no offence. [Interruption.] I admit that I picked the easy name first.
A debit or credit can be used at a manned toll booth. It can be used at any time, but it depends on whether the booth is manned. The Chamber will be pleased to know that according to information that I received today, it will be possible in July to use non-PIN card technology at the booths. That is crucial because the use of PIN technology creates delays. I will come on to further technology later in the debate, but my information suggests that that will happen in July—I was told it would happen in the summer, and “July” is written in brackets after that.
The company has an agreement with the banks, but we have had to assist with that to obtain that sort of technology. As hon. Members will imagine, banks prefer PIN technology because of the risk of fraud. We have resolved that issue, however, although there was some surprise about that, not least because we had to get through European legislation. Nevertheless, we succeeded in doing so and in July people will be able to cross using non-PIN card technology, which will help enormously—I am sure hon. Members will hold me to that, and I will hold the company to account should it not happen.
The removal of the 30 seconds that would be added to a transaction through the use of a PIN will help speed through the just under 4,000 vehicles per hour the booths are capable of dealing with. Interestingly, the capacity of the M4 is greater than that when everything goes correctly. I hope that in five hours’ time when the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) makes that journey, the severe tailbacks that were reported to me earlier will have gone—I am joking; as I understand it, the road is clear although information comes in regularly.
The other day, I was pleased to announce a huge investment of £100 million in the M4/M5 managed motorway network. That money comes from the central fund, and will dramatically change the traffic situation on that side of the bridge. As hon. Members know, my background is in the fire service, and I was very sceptical about managed motorways when I first looked at the technology; to me, hard shoulders are dangerous areas that were designed for a reason.
Nevertheless, when the managed motorways system was piloted on the M42 under the previous Administration, it was massively over-engineered at the time, but it worked. We have since moved the engineering down, and rolled the system out around the country. A £100 million investment is being provided in difficult times to the M4 and M5 around the Bristol area. Colleagues will know how difficult the bottleneck on those two major arteries can be, and that will be alleviated once the roadworks are finished. That is always a problem—it is no pain, no gain when it comes to roadworks.
While we are talking about pain, most colleagues will receive a letter from me tomorrow stating that we intend to start work on the road surface of the new bridge. Work will start—I can give the exact date—on 9 June and run until 14 July on the eastbound carriageways, and between 6 September and 11 October on the westbound carriageways. That is due mostly to the fact that the inside lane in both directions is severely worn and will have to be completely replaced.
We looked carefully at how to manage the obvious disruption that will take place. Options included a contraflow system and shutting the bridge while work is carried out. The option that we went for will extend the work—overall it will take about five weeks to put a new waterproof membrane on the bridge and surface the road—but it will leave at least one lane open each way. We made the decision not to shut the bridge or use a contraflow system that would have caused more expense and extensive delays. There will be delays, for which I apologise, but investment must be put into the bridge because of its age, and that will be done. It is a reflection of the amount of traffic that the bridge carries.
The only party political point that I will make during my speech will be to touch on the recent elections and my Welsh colleagues’ proposals to fund the costs of the toll increases through the Welsh Assembly. It is entirely up to the Welsh Assembly whether or not it wishes to use its funds in that way. If the Conservative party had been elected, it would have been its decision how to run the economy in Wales, just as today’s Administration make those decisions. If the Conservative party—or any other party as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) said earlier—decided that it wanted to fund the cost of the difference between the toll today and the proposed increases under the contract agreement, that could be negotiated with the United Kingdom Government. My door is open to the Welsh Assembly, under the respect agenda to say the least. I wrote to my counterpart in that Assembly—I must now write again because the holder of that position has changed—and offered my assistance.
I am speaking on behalf of the Department rather than the Treasury, but if that money were used to offset the difference, the contract would not be affected and would remain in place. The only difference would be that money would be recouped from the Welsh Assembly rather than directly from the tolls. It is a complicated legal issue. It sounds simple, but it is quite complicated. Did I know about this? I have to be perfectly honest: the answer is no. However, that does not mean that we would not get into negotiations or provide every assistance for that to happen.
All the discussions that we have had to date, including in the Select Committee, have been based on whether there could be a reduction in the toll at night or a reduction in the toll for local residents. I must admit that the position is much more complicated in this case than it is in the case of the two other major bridges that are often cited. Could there be no increases whatever? Everything comes down to the fact that a contract is in place that says that the company is allowed, after costs, to recoup X amount of money before the bridge is handed back into the full ownership of the Secretary of State.
If I were the company, would I want to negotiate any changes to the present contract? Probably not. So what we are talking about is an increase in the time that the tolls would be there. At every stage when I talk about the tolls and the bridge and we have these discussions, it is a question of a balance between the length of time that the bridge is out of our ownership, based on the contractual agreement that we have, and when it could come back into our ownership and decisions could be made.
It would be wrong of me to say that we are not thinking about what will happen at the end of the concession agreement. Of course, we are thinking about what will happen. However, as I have said, this is a national piece of infrastructure and a cross-departmental matter. It is a national asset. I am sure that the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh people will understand that we will have to consider what happens to the bridge in the context of the investment going into our networks. However, no decision has been made.
Naturally, the debate focused on whether we could reduce the toll to £1 up to 2017, but I infer from what the Minister has said that if the money was forthcoming—for example, from the Welsh Assembly or from anywhere else—to pay down the debt now, the bridge would move into public ownership earlier than 2017, in which case we could have lower tolls now, although perhaps not a toll of £1. Can the Westminster Government now pay down that debt from their own money, with a strategy of recovering the money that they pay it down with by reducing the toll now to somewhere between where it is now and £1, so that we could have a lower toll sooner, albeit not as low as £1?
This is where I wish that I had not joined the Army at 16 but had gone to university and become a corporate lawyer. We can discuss the legalities in quite simple terms. Nothing at all can be done without the agreement of the concessionaire, so should the company decide that it does not want to do what has been suggested, that will be a fact. We are trapped in a contract; everyone knows that and the Committee examined the matter in detail.
I can see the logic of where the hon. Member for Swansea West is coming from, but the Welsh Assembly subsidising what would be the increase this year would not cause the contract to be terminated earlier, because all that would happen is that the same money would be recouped from the Assembly or whoever wanted to pay it as would be recouped from tolls. Thus the length of time would be exactly the same. I will write to the hon. Gentleman—the lawyers are probably panicking as they listen to the debate—to clarify exactly what the legal position is. However, I am certain—this is what all the advice says—that if the company that was formed specifically for this purpose does not want to play ball, there is nothing that we can do.
While the Minister is on the issue of the contract, does what has been said equally apply to car sharing? Would it be equally difficult to resolve the issue of being able to swap between different cars in car-sharing schemes?
I have asked for a note, but it has not arrived. It might do—hint, hint—in the time left. I cannot understand the difference, I must admit. Clearly, car sharing is going on. It happens on the routes that go from where I used to live in Essex into London. We commend car sharing. We want people to share cars, because it reduces emissions and makes travel much more cost-effective for people. I do not understand how the concession agreement would be affected in that respect, but I am sure that the lawyers will tell me why I am wrong—as always, I am being as honest as I can.
The hon. Member for Newport East made a couple of other points earlier. I have already touched on how price freezing and tolling would work. In the Select Committee evidence session, I talked about whether there is more technology that we can use to make things much easier for the communities on both sides of the border and for industry and at the same time to sweat the asset more, as we are doing with managed motorways. In other words, are we getting the best out of the bridge? Clearly, the toll process is causing delays.
We are committed to free-flow tolling at the Dartford river crossing. We made an announcement about that in the spending round, and I made an announcement about it to the Select Committee. There are real technical issues about using automatic number plate recognition, which is what we intend to use. It is similar to what the congestion charge scheme in London uses. There is an enforcement issue, particularly in relation to overseas vehicles. We intend to get that right at Dartford before we introduce the system. However, I can see no logical reason why it could not be introduced at the Severn river crossing.
The problem, of course, is the cost and who bears it. That is what the hon. Member for Pontypridd was alluding to. Let us be honest: why would the company set up in the context of the concession agreement to make this profit say to me, “Okay, Minister, we’ll spend X million pounds doing this for you,” rather than saying, “Will you pay for it?” or “We’ll use our rights to go further in the concessionary period.”
The truth is that by the time we fully implement ANPR and free-flow technology at Dartford, we will be into 2013, not least because of the construction work that needs to be done. Doing free-flow tolling sounds simple, but it is not. Otherwise, people would be hurtling through and we would have speed issues and so on. We will not be that far away from the conclusions about what will happen post the concession. I think that the negotiations will have to include what we would expect a modern tolling system to involve in the 21st century. The issue will arise once we have rolled out the system and done everything that we need to do at Dartford. The last thing that the Select Committee would want me to do is to say yes, we’ll definitely be able to roll it out in 2015 or ’16—in the latter part of this Parliament—if we have not got it running right. I am confident that we can do that, because the technology is there.
I think that we were all sceptical when the congestion charge was introduced in London. The issue was not the rights and wrongs of it, but whether it would work. It does work. The main issue is enforcement in relation to foreign-registered vehicles. I was with representatives of Transport for London only today, working out how we can deal with that.
I want to clarify what the Minister has just said, because it was very interesting. Is he suggesting that some negotiations have taken place already between the Department for Transport and the company and that, subject to the technology being made failsafe at Dartford, an agreement might be struck whereby the Government would be prepared to compensate the company for introducing free-flow technology on the bridge before 2017? Is that what he was implying?
No. That would be a spending commitment, and I do not have the authority in my lowly position to dream of ever giving one. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want to put words into my mouth, but the answer is no. The only way of funding that before 2017 would be through the concessionaire, and the discussion would be about whether it is willing to fund it under the existing contract—I doubt whether it would be. If we did not allow the company to increase the toll, it would look for an extension or—this is within the contract, and it would have every right to do so—to seek compensation from the Treasury. That, too, is unlikely.
By a miracle, a document has appeared before me. It says that SRC is prepared to negotiate extending the TAG scheme for car sharing. Naturally, however, it will not want to be financially worse off. That may not fully answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Newport East, but it is the best that I can do. I want to be as open as I can about this. I shall write to SRC saying what I was told during the debate and asking the company to clarify its position. I shall share that information with colleagues. It is only right and proper to do so.
I realise that I still have plenty of time, but I have no intention of filibustering—not least because Members wish to disappear. However, I have a speaking engagement in London this evening, so I am more than happy to continue.
In conclusion, I welcome the Committee’s report, and I shall work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government in analysing the economic effect of tolling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth rightly pointed out, there is little hard evidence that the bridges have had an economic effect. I do not say that they have not, but the Committee made extensive efforts to find evidence and did not, despite Chinese whispers among local communities. As I have said, the Welsh Assembly has publicised the fact that some 700 companies have located in the region over the past 40 years, long before the Welsh Assembly was formed, so something must be right. I believe that that evidence is shown on the Assembly website.
I realise that the crossing is a vital piece of national infrastructure. I am proud that my portfolio predominantly covers the whole of this great nation of ours. It is for me to work with and alongside the various devolved Assemblies and Parliaments. At the same time, however, I must ensure that they understand that it is a Department for Transport piece of infrastructure—a Westminster one—despite knowing how emotive it is to the local communities in Wales and those on the other side of the bridge in England.
I have listened carefully to the hauliers. I listen to them nearly every day, and they are an amazing group of people. Perhaps I think that because I hold an HGV licence and used to drive lorries when a fireman—like most firemen, I used to drive part-time when off duty.
The key is fairness. If tolls continue beyond the existing agreement, and if free-flow tolling comes in, it would be wrong in my opinion that the tolls should remain one-way. That unfairness would have to be addressed if we had free-flow tolling and if the toll was increased. A number of truck drivers have told me that they go into Wales one way and come out the other because of the toll. Not only is the Treasury losing income, but it is another unfairness that needs to be addressed, although it is difficult to deal with it now, because of the way it is set up.
I hope that I have not delayed anyone’s journey home. Indeed, we will finish a fraction early. I hope that I have answered most questions, at least in general terms. I have been as honest as I can, as I was when giving evidence to the Select Committee. I pay tribute to the Committee on its conclusions, even if we do not fully agree on certain aspects. I was interested to note that all who are here today are Welsh MPs, yet the subject has a significant effect on the UK as a whole.
I wonder whether the Minister could signal in the most general terms whether he anticipates the direction of travel for the toll post-2017 to be significantly downwards. It would be interesting information for inward investors.
As I have said, I do not intend delaying the Chamber. The answer is no. I cannot give an indication, and the hon. Gentleman can probably understand why.
On that point, I hand over to the Committee Chair. I hope that I have paid the report due credit.
I am grateful to the Minister, a fellow holder of an HGV licence, for giving me another 15 minutes to speak. As some of us wish to make fact-finding visits to the Severn bridge later today, I shall not use it all.
A bridge with a toll is better than no bridge. That is accepted. A bridge with a cashless payment system would be better still, and not one that takes only credit cards; the sort pioneered by companies such as Ringo—I have no connection with the company, but it gave evidence to the Committee—would be better still. A bridge with a reduced toll after 2017 would be excellent, and we look forward to improvements.
The Gwent national party, led by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), and I see eye to eye on many things, and we would have no difficulty in finding agreement on the Severn bridge, on the importance of the Union and on the importance of the first-past-the-post voting system—and, I suspect, on whether we hand further powers to the Welsh Assembly. That, however, is an argument for another day. We look forward to improvements after 2017.
Question put and agreed to.