My Lords, the Government have previously said that we would look at all options and consider the views of others before making any firm decisions. Our intention is to continue tolling after the projected end of the concession in 2018 to recover costs that have been incurred and fall outside the concession agreement.
I am slightly disappointed by that Answer, especially as I was rather hoping that the Government might announce that they were going to abolish this tax on business in Wales and on entering Wales. Given that we do not pay a toll when we travel on the raised parts of the M5 and M6 around Birmingham, that the Thurrock-Dartford bridge is not a motorway but an A road and that the M6 toll road is an alternative route, can the Minister tell me any other structures, tunnels, bridges or roads on the motorway network for which a charge is made; or do the Government believe—as they seem to—that these motorway links into Wales should be the only through routes on our motorway network for which we must pay a toll?
My Lords, there are other areas of the United Kingdom where tolls are charged—through tunnels and on bridges from the Mersey to areas of Scotland, and around other areas of England as well. The important thing is that there is a concessionary scheme in place. As I have already said, we will look at this at the end of that concessionary period, towards the early part of 2018, and I assure the noble Lord that we are working very closely with the Welsh Government in this regard.
My Lords, the blunt truth is that Wales is at or near of the bottom of the indices of deprivation in this country. Surely if the Government were serious about tackling the deprivation in Wales this tax on Wales and the Welsh people should be abolished.
This is not a tax on Wales. As the noble Lord is well aware, it goes towards the running and maintenance of the bridge. As I have already indicated, at the end of the concessionary period the Government will review their position to ensure that, as the noble Lord rightly points out, this is a gateway to Wales. My right honourable friend the Chancellor indicated at last year’s Budget that, at the end of the concessionary period, for example, VAT will no longer apply and vans helping small and medium-sized enterprises will be charged the same toll as cars. That is an indication of the Government’s belief in encouraging the gateway to Wales.
My Lords, Owens Logistics is a distribution business and a major employer in Llanelli. It spends £380,000 a year on tolls at £20 a time just for crossing the Severn Bridge. Can the Minister tell us what message this sends to similar businesses looking to do business in Wales?
My Lords, I have just said—I am sure that the noble Baroness heard my previous answer—that the Government are looking to assist small and medium-sized enterprises in that regard. When the concessionary period comes to end, we will review the tolling procedure and will work hand in glove with the Welsh Government to ensure that an effective tolling regime applies on the bridge. However, I remind noble Lords that, even at the end of the concessionary period, £63 million will still be owing to the UK taxpayer, and it is therefore right that we look to ensure that we recover that cost.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there is already a toll on the Mersey tunnel and that there is a proposal to charge on the second crossing to Runcorn. Can he set out the criteria for deciding whether something is charged for? The charging system seems somewhat confused.
I am sure that that is just the noble Lord’s view; it is certainly not my view. Just to put this matter into perspective and to get back to the nature of the Question, people who choose to use the Severn Bridge crossing save, on average, up to 50 minutes on their journey time, so there is a cost benefit. There is also a time benefit for businesses and individual travellers to Wales.
As I have already said, there is a cost to the bridge. As the noble Lord knows, a concessionary scheme is in place but at the end of the concessionary period money will still be owing to the UK taxpayer for the cost of the bridge, and that needs to be recovered. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, we estimate that the toll will continue for two years, as there is a need to recoup the—on current forecasts—£63 million which is currently outstanding.