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(d) the promotion of the enjoyment of the countryside by the public."
I was glad also to hear my hon. Friend refer to the need to enhance the beauty and wildlife variety of the countryside. I want to make a point about fauna in the 1986 Act and wildlife variety. It may well be covered by item 10 in schedule 1 to the regulations, but according to research that has been undertaken by the Game Conservancy in North Yorkshire 11 per cent. of the winter kill of the one bird that is unique to Great Britain--the red grouse--stems from birds flying into fences. That is in an area where fencing is decidedly limited, but the situation in the research areas of the Game Conservancy in Scotland is infinitely worse. The proportion of winter deaths in Scotland stemming from fencing is 26 per cent. That means that slightly more than a quarter of winter deaths in Scotland stem from birds flying into fences.
There is a solution to this : the attachment of reflective metal plates to fencing. I suspect that many hon. Gentlemen will have seen balls attached to electricity power lines. I do not know what they are called, but they look like balls. Their purpose is to enable the power lines to be seen by birds. The same is true of old telephone lines, to which corks are attached. There must be similar provision for the fencing of heather moorland if there is not to be a high death rate amongst red grouse, which is
Column 279not only a bird of considerable national interest but is unique to this country. It is also of great economic importance to the upland areas of the United Kingdom.
Will the cost of attaching reflective metal plates to fencing be covered by item 10 in schedule 1 which refers to
"Any work, facility or transaction incidental to the carrying out of any work, facility or transaction specified in any of paragraphs 1 to 9 above"?
I hope that my hon. Friend can tell me that the cost of the plates or similar additions to fencing for the same purpose will be covered. There should be protection not only for red grouse but for other moorland birds that fly close to the ground and which can be carried away in a full gale such as there has been in the last few days. The cost must be covered if my hon. Friend is to live up to his desire to enhance the beauty and wildlife of the countryside and to the commitment in section 17 of the Agriculture Act 1986. I hope that my hon. Friend will give me a positive reply.
I welcome the order concerned with the farm and conservation grant scheme 1989. It shows progress in Government policy. However, there are important points which affect the rural economy. When capital grant priorities pointed towards increased production, there was a pay-off in increased production and an improvement in farm incomes as a result. The change to farm pollution control and conservation is desirable, but unfortunately it will not have the same consequences for farm incomes. That is worrying from the point of view of keeping the rural economy and farms going, in particular in the less favoured areas.
It is against that background that the National Farmers Union has censured the Minister of Agriculture. Concurrent with these trends have emerged the lowest farm incomes in real terms since the second world war. Understandably, farmers are disturbed. There has been a great loss of capital grants which were oriented towards increased production. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) pointed out that there has been a drop from £217 million to £78 million. That is an awful lot of money to take out of the rural economy. We must remember that many of the upland areas are remote and that incomes on the farms are low. In addition, the earnings of people in the rural economies are extremely low. Many upland areas of Britain have the lowest disposable incomes in the whole country. That concerns us all.
Among the farmers in those areas are small farmers who are under intense pressure from the Government because of high interest rates. We all know that those high interest rates have been imposed by the Chancellor, because of the credit card spending spree in the high street. However, that bears no relationship to what is happening in rural Britain and the ability of farmers to achieve a realistic net income in order to stay afloat.
Column 280There are tremendous problems for farmers in attempting to stay afloat. About four years ago, my area of Powys was obtaining about £30 million-worth of capital grants. Of course, it is now receiving only a shadow of that sum. Money has been taken away not only from the farming community, but also from the contractors and other support groups in the industry. That together with the loss, for example, of the tax benefits for purchasing new machinery--where there was 100 per cent. dispensation at one time--has affected machinery dealers too. We must be careful how we approach this subject. Obviously, pollution control and conservation are important, but they bring with them problems. The principles, however, are certainly to be welcomed. Perhaps part of the problem is that there is not enough money on the table.
The support of native woodlands, heather moorlands and traditional buildings must be welcomed. However, the loss of grants for new farm buildings--which enabled increased production and, therefore, increased income on farms--needs to be considered further. Many of those buildings enabled farmers to increase their incomes. We must not forget that costs-- especially fixed costs--are continually rising. The missing part of the jigsaw in the Government's present proposals must be the fact that the previous grants enabled higher incomes to be achieved.
I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) that the reduction in grant aid from 60 to 50 per cent. for certain items in less favoured areas is regrettable. By their very description, those areas have far fewer options and therefore, need as much support as possible in order for the farms to remain viable. I understand that there will be no more assistance for new drainage. I trust, however, that there will be some assistance for the maintenance of existing drainage, because many of the areas to which I have referred are high rainfall areas and, if the drains are not maintained, there will be a rapid reversion and the land will be less able to produce properly.
I was pleased to hear about the grants for orchard replanting and horticulture, and that there is some support for energy in those areas. As in other parts of the European Community, our horticulture has suffered grievously because of lack of support. Support, therefore, is something to be welcomed.
The problem is that the return on investment in farms at present is not that good, and, of course, that has not been helped by the interest rate increases. I believe that it should be possible to design environmentally friendly systems of farming which are also profitable. The Government, however, have cut research and development by £30 million, when, in fact, it should be expanded to cover different farming systems--ones which are profitable and will maintain the people on the land, but will also maintain the conservation of the countryside.
I particularly welcome the support for hedgerows, as I come from an area where they are cherished. The hedges in my area with their crop and pleach style are the finest in the land. They are superbly maintained and I am pleased that support will be given to them. I am disappointed about the support for liming, which is put at 25 per cent. That is nothing like the support given when the lime subsidy was in operation. Liming not only increases productivity in an environmentally friendly manner, but assists in creating a buffer against the tremendous problems of acidity that exist in upland areas.
Column 281The Government should be encouraged to increase support for liming as it will have double effects and will considerably improve matters. There is no doubt that the pH levels in rivers, for example, have fallen dramatically since the mid-1970s as a result of the loss of liming subsidies.
In the final analysis we must ask whether the measures will assist the economic viability of our farms. I believe that they will not do enough. They will help to improve conservation efforts as they will support pollution control--there must be more enforcement of such policies--but they will not increase the viability of farms. The Ministry must now work hard to ensure that the farmers and their families will still be living on their farms in 20 years' time. That is what the National Farmers Union was complaining about today. 12.11 am
Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : The measures are especially welcome as they signify a change in direction. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) said that he was sad that they will do nothing to improve farm income. While I sympathise with that, it would be rather strange if, at the very time the Government are leading the fight in Europe to deal with agricultural surpluses, we produced a profligate scheme to give money to farmers to invest in their farm structures.
The measures are important because they concentrate on some of the priority areas. I welcome the grants for horticulture, especially those relevant to the bulb production industry, which is important in my constituency and throughout many parts of the Fenlands and East Anglia. It is not often recognised that the British bulb industry is far larger than the Dutch industry and that we export a large number of bulbs to Holland.
I also welcome the grant enhancement for young farmers contained in regulation 10. About 14 years ago I represented British young farmers in Brussels and I worked on what was then known as the draft young farmer directive. Even though neither "young" nor "farmer" applies to me any more, it is nice to see that that directive--even at this late stage--is beginning to see the light of day.
Regulation 10 also allows enhanced grant to partnerships. It does not apply to existing limited partnerships that were devised simply as a way round the outdated tenancy laws--they are an anachronism in our free society. The grant applies to the true partnerships that are known in Europe, particularly in France, and in some parts of the United Kingdom. Under those partnerships, individuals join their farms to improve the efficiency of the total unit.
The most important part of the measures relates to conservation. All hon. Members want to see considerable increases in conservation schemes throughout the countryside. As the population becomes more prosperous, and leisure and travel become available to more people, everyone wants to see the countryside of their dreams, the countryside that they have read about and believe to exist. Thus, these measures, alongside the farm woodland scheme that has already been referred to, are very welcome. They are particularly apposite at present because farm incomes have been diminishing and are continuing to
Column 282diminish substantially, and income has become a negative factor for many farmers. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) implied that.
We cannot expect farmers to invest large sums of money in totally non- productive investments, such as conservation, however desirable and admirable an investment it might be generally for all of us. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) said about capital value, conservation does not enhance farm incomes one iota. Therefore we must recognise that, if we want farmers to carry out conservation measures such as the creation of hedgerows, it can be done only with substantial grant encouragement from the Government. I welcome that very much.
As profits disappear, farmers will look increasingly to this sort of encouragement. This encouraging set of regulations reflects the changing times in agriculture, and I am very pleased to give it my support.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : I suppose that we should be grateful for any financial assistance to farming during a period of financial stress and change, but I must express some disappointment at these measures, especially given the major problems confronting agriculture. The proposals will do nothing to assist Scottish farmers who face bankruptcy due to bad weather, poor yields, annual price reductions and appallingly high interest rates. The regulations are designed to tease out further investment by farmers, but farmers have every right to be wary.
During the 1970s, farmers were consistently encouraged to borrow relatively large sums to invest in their businesses and become more efficient. The level of today's interest rates shows just how misguided that policy turned out to be. But what is worse is the prospect of untold damage being done to Scotland's rural economy if the Government continue to ignore the financial crisis in farming. Unemployment and rural depopulation will inevitably increase if farms go under. Therefore, instead of paying chickenfeed subsidies for minor improvements, as in this measure, the Government should deal with the cripplingly high interest rate burden.
This small measure must be seen in the context of a commercial situation where our European farming competitors in West Germany and the Netherlands pay interest at less than half the rate facing our farmers--6 per cent. as against 13 per cent. Instead of promoting minor EEC measures such as the regulations, the Government should be encouraging more relevant and appropriate EEC action for our agriculture.
Has the Minister really looked at the index of average net farm incomes produced by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland? The index shows that since 1978, farm income has dropped in real terms by more than 35 per cent. Average net farm incomes outwith the dairy sector are well below the average in other sectors, and there is no sign of improvement.
How, then, will these farm and conservation grant measures stem that tide? That is the question facing the Minister early this morning. In promoting the grant scheme, the Government clearly have no understanding of the main factors involved in the rural income multiplier. Agriculture expenditure is the mainstay of many more jobs in distribution and the ancillary sectors.
Column 283To take just one example, under the regulations the 40 and 50 per cent. grants that will be available for tree planting in enclosed areas of grazed woodlands will do very little to get rid of the massive surplus of nursery stocks. Yet these are the very producers that the Government were addressing in their farm woodland scheme. They were supposed to assist in taking surplus land out of production, and they have been actively encouraged to expand by the Government. After substantial disruption caused by changes in the forestry taxation regime, the Government have refused point blank to meet the industry to discuss any form of compensation to meet the present problems. The so-called adjustment or market correction process used recently by various Ministers is a euphemism for Government-induced disaster. Why will not the Government face up to their
responsibilities in that matter?
In a letter to the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Horticultural Trades Association says :
"when the Farm Woodlands Scheme was first being considered, representatives of the nursery industry met with the Ministry of Agriculture to give assurances that stock would be available to meet the expected uptake in this planting season. Having now produced the trees, we are faced with minimal uptake at present and little likelihood of applications under the scheme being processed and approved in time for this season's programme."
In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), a constituent says :
"We in the nursery trade have been led up a path to the wilderness. The Farm Woodland Scheme appears to be a total or near-total fiasco. I understand that the paper work is so complicated that it is a disincentive to anyone who may be interested and even for the keen it takes many months to have all paper work processed. It is all very disturbing."
I regret that the Minister seems to have abandoned the Front Bench. I should have liked him to listen to the final sentence written on behalf of people who are dealing with the industry. It says :
"There is no doubt in my mind but that the government haven't much of a clue as to the damage they are doing to our industry." No wonder, when the Minister leaves the Front Bench to wander off to talk to other people. He should listen, perhaps even to his civil servants. It is in that context that the measures must be viewed and criticised. I welcome the Minister back.
On the credit side, the measure seeks to improve energy conservation in its proposal to supply wind or water pumps and generators, and investment in solar and other forms of energy saving. From an environmental angle I hope that the Government will consider giving at least 50 per cent. grants across the board for energy-saving devices instead of the paltry 15 and 25 per cent. proposed at present. That is inadequate for the task.
To ensure that the job is done properly greater incentives must surely be offered. For only a little investment substantial gains can be made in energy-saving devices, yet the proposal offers merely a token gesture in the direction of the long-term saving of energy costs which will be crucial to the industry's survival.
Similarly, the proposed field drainage and reseeding grants should be substantially increased, or an oppor-tunity for reform will be lost. The measures are an opportunity missed and will be seen by the industry as no more than short-term palliatives which do not address the real problems facing farmers in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom during a period of change and readjustment.
Column 284In short, I am disappointed with the package. It could have been so much better and I hope that the Minister will go back to Europe and argue the case better for the needs of our farmers.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : We are running short of time so I shall be as quick as I can. First, I join my hon. Friends in congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister on introducing these suggestions into our legal system. I have a series of questions to put to him, which I shall fire one after the other and hope that he will have an opportunity to deal with them.
The first is a technical question. I am not at all clear why draft regulations from Europe and a statutory instrument should be laid before the House when both seem to cover almost entirely the same ground. As draft regulations from Europe go straight into our legal system without any need for ratification by the Government of the day, as I understand it, why do we need both? Why, apart from regulations 6 to 10, does the statutory instrument appear merely to parrot what the European regulations say? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could explain why we need to introduce legislation in that dual form under our new status as a full member of the European Community. I wish also to make one or two points about some of the proposals in the two papers.
I see that the schedule 1(1)(c) of the draft regulations there is a distinction between the grants to be given in shelter belts of broad-leaved trees and other shelter belts, the former being given a 40 per cent. grant and the others only 15 per cent. While I appreciate that broad-leaved trees are much more attractive in the countryside than some of the other shelter belts, as a practical farmer I must point out that it is often much more to the advantage of the farm and the livestock shelter to plant a quicker- growing shelter belt than the rather more attractive broad-leaved one. In cereal areas, where there will clearly be a need for new shelter belts when the cereal farmer tries to diversify into other forms of farming, I hope that the Government will see the sense of giving a larger grant for quick- growing shelter belts to enable that transition to be made more effectively.
In schedule 1(2), the enclosure of areas of grazed woodland is expressly mentioned as qualifying for the 40 per cent. grant. I am not clear as to the distinction between grazed woodland and non-grazed woodland. Will this cover only woodlands which are being deliberately grazed at the moment, or will it cover woodlands into which the animals can get willy-nilly but from which fencing would enable the farmer to exclude them? I very much hope that it will be the latter. Otherwise the application of this provision will be extremely limited and therefore of very narrow value.
With regard to schedule 1(5), concerning reinstatement of vernacular buildings, I associate myself with what the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) said. I believe that he is right to seek a balance between restoring agricultural buildings in the proper, old-fashioned materials and enhancing the property developer's profit when the buildings are turned over to the use of yuppies in the south-east of England. That balance must obviously be found. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he handled the debate. It is always refreshing when the Opposition can join the Government and welcome
Column 285proposals. It is always nice for the Opposition to get congratulations from the Conservative Benches--they wonder what they have done wrong. The points that the hon. Gentleman made in criticism will also find some sympathy on this side of the House. We must work together to ensure that the draft regulations come into our law in the proper form and give the maximum benefit to our farming community.
The next point that I wish to raise in detail concerns schedule 1(9). I see that it is only in Scotland that the making, improving or alteration of banks or channels of watercourses will be eligible for grant. Perhaps the Minister can tell me why the less fortunate areas in the rest of the United Kingdom are excluded when parts of the north, of Wales and of Northern Ireland are at least as liable to damage from flooding as parts of Scotland. I welcome the provision for Scotland, but I hope that we can find ways of extending it to other parts of the country.
I have one rather important query about the draft regulations. The explanatory note to the document says, in sub-paragraph (f), that in addition to all the things that we have already discussed today regulation 18 will confer rights of entry. I was not aware that we were talking about conferring rights of entry at all today and I would view with considerable suspicion new rights of entry being brought into our laws of trespass by such means. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure me that no radical changes will be made by these regulations from Europe to the way in which the laws of England operate in relation to rights of entry and ownership.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : I am sorry if the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) is alarmed by any aspect of the measures, which, as he pointed out, have been acknowledged by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House as being at least a half-step in the right direction. It is a matter of some joy whenever the Government produce intervention or direct assistance ; we keep asking them to do so in respect of other industries. We should be thankful for small mercies, and that the Government are still prepared to invest in rural areas through agriculture.
It is important to recognise the direct impact that such an investment incentive has on the rural economy, because the money is not going into farmers' pockets but must be spent immediately on employing people to carry out works in the rural economy--which, given the new thrust that the Minister outlined, will be completed in an environmentally sensitive manner.
I take the point of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) concerning drainage. The old under-drainage systems in the principal arable areas of the country are collapsing or silting up considerably more rapidly than they are being replaced. Further incentives are important to ensure that Britain's arable land is kept in a reasonable state and fit for cultivation. I wonder whether the grants will go far enough.
As to the repair and reinstatement of vernacular buildings, will the Minister confirm that grants can be extended to cover adaptations? It is no use restoring a cart shed that was designed 100 years ago for use by horses and
Column 286carts, when it is impossible to get modern equipment into it. I hope that that measure can be interpreted reasonably flexibly. The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) put his finger on a relevant point when he said that pure conservation investment is, ipso facto, unlikely to create any increase in the farmer's income. Grant regulation 6(1) states :
"An improvement plan shall not be approved under these Regulations unless the appropriate Minister is satisfied that the investments to be made under the plan are justified from the point of view of the situation of the agricultural business and its economy and that completion of the plan will bring about a lasting and substantial improvement of that situation, and in particular of the income per labour unit reasonably required in the carrying on of the business." I do not see how it is possible to square that circle. I fear that a certain amount of fiction may have to be written in preparing investment plans, to make programmes eligible for the scheme. Nevertheless, I hope that the measures work--but I wish that they were rather more generous.
Mr. Ryder : We have had, as I expected, a well-informed debate on the scheme, and I am grateful for the generally warm welcome that it received. Right hon. and hon. Members raised a host of specific points, to which I shall endeavour to respond. If I do not cover them all in the short time remaining to me, I shall write to the right hon. and hon. Members concerned.
The Government recognise the special difficulties of hill farming and the important part that it plays in the economy and environment of the areas in question. That is why we are retaining an LFA differential across the board, apart from waste treatment and traditional buildings. It is also why we are careful to retain grants that are particularly important in LFAs-- especially those for reseeding, regeneration, liming and fertilising. We are also introducing some new grants for heather moors, native woodlands, and repairs to vernacular buildings that should prove particularly helpful in the uplands.
Farmers in LFAs have had the benefit of 60 per cent. grants for three years since 1985. Over that period, we have contributed a great deal to the cost of conserving the uplands environment. The greatest pollution problems are associated with dairy farms, which are concentrated in the lowlands. The prime concerns for
environmentalists have been the removal and neglect of lowland hedgerows, to which I referred, so, in my view, it makes sense to shift the balance of support in the way that I described. The regulations cannot be amended. The scheme will be put through the formal EC approval procedures after the United Kingdom Parliament has approved it. But, as I have said previously, I am always ready to take up the views of hon. Members to take them into account for future purposes. We have had extensive discussions with the European Commission, which has indicated informally that the scheme conforms with Community rules.
It is recognised that the United Kingdom is breaking new ground in Europe, and we have probably set a lead which others will wish to follow. We shall still need to submit the scheme through the formal clearance procedures, but we have been grateful for the informal guidance that the Commission has been able to offer and for its confirmation that it conforms with the necessary regulations.
Column 287The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) made an interesting speech. He was right to say that the scheme will be extended to Northern Ireland under a separate instrument. He asked whether there could be any help for farmers who had prepared but not submitted improvement plans. The closure regulation of necessity had to operate from a set date and it was inevitable that some would fall on the wrong side. We have accepted that where prior notification was required--as in, for example, national parks--notification can count as a plan submitted.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly raised the problem of pollution, and I, too, am concerned about that. I re-emphasise that our anti-pollution grants are running at about £50 million over three years, and I strongly support appropriate prosecutions against farmers causing pollution ; legislation permits a maximum fine of £2, 000 for each offence, plus clean-up costs.
The hon. Gentleman cast some doubt on the enclosure of native woodlands. There is a need for the new grant. Indeed, the RSPB pressed strongly for a fencing grant. The farm woodland scheme to which he referred is about planting trees for commercial timber production. The new grant that we have been discussing is about the better management of existing woodlands, irrespective of their value as timber.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). I recognise the value of hedges as wildlife habitats and landscape features and their value for agricultural purposes, and I had discussions with the hon. Member for Wentworth as I said in a previous Question Time that I would. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) alluded to farm incomes. I remind him that the latest economic forecasts show for the second year running an increase in incomes of livestock producers generally across
Column 288less-favoured areas. Net farm incomes in the United Kingdom LFAs are forecast to be 7 per cent. higher in real terms in 1988-89, following an increase of 48 per cent. in 1987-88.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) asked about fencing to encourage the regeneration of heather moors and the possibility of reflective plates, and I shall consider that idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) spoke of the relationship between the regulations and the scheme. They are United Kingdom regulations ; they are our detailed implementation of the more general rules in EC regulation 797/85. The scheme is similar because this is the other part of the farm and conservation grant scheme. He also questioned me about rights of entry. This is not a new right. It is a continuation of a right which was in the agriculture improvement scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster asked about the exclusion of livestock from grazed woodland. The grant will cover woods used as shelter for livestock or for grazing. There is no specific requirement that this use shall be at a particular level before the grant will be paid. It is open to the farmer to decide whether stock are inhibiting regrowth and therefore whether fencing is necessary-- It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted Business).
Question agreed to.
That the draft Farm and Conservation Grant Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 2nd February, be approved.
That the Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 128), a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd February, be approved.-- [Mr. Ryder.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East) : I welcome the opportunity to raise again the issue of tolls on the Severn bridge. I note that the Minister for Roads and Traffic is to reply : I have nothing against him personally, but for me he is essentially the fall guy called upon to defend the indefensible. He is also essentially the voice of south-east England, with little understanding of the chronic problems of Wales.
The man who should be in the hot seat tonight is the Secretary of State for Wales. For the past 18 months or so he has been running around Wales telling us how marvellous he is, and of the miracles that he is performing. The truth, of course, is a little different. Two major collieries are scheduled for closure, Marine colliery in Ebbw Vale and Cynheidre in the Llanelli area. Last weekend we received the shattering news that the newly privatised British Steel was making over 1,000 people redundant. The Velindre steelworks at Swansea were to be closed completely ; over 700 jobs would go there, and several hundred more in other steelworks in Wales.
The instant response from our Secretary of State was that we must attract new jobs, and one of the best ways of doing that is to get rid of tolls on the Severn bridge. The issue is vital to the future well-being of Wales : the bridge is our main access point in and out of Wales, and it is merely a short stretch of the M4.
Tolls are a major factor in hindering the economic development of Wales. This additional tax on our people is completely unjustified. For example, my constituents living in Caldicot will now have to earn more than £13 gross to pay £10 per week in toll charges when pursuing their employment on the other side of the channel. That is grossly unfair : it is a charge even before they get their cars out of the garage.
There are no tolls on the Avon bridge which serves nearby Bristol, our principal competitor in attracting new jobs. The old argument that vehicles could use other routes if they did not wish to use the Severn bridge is pretty ridiculous. Any significant increase in traffic in the Gloucester area now would cause chaos and a public outcry.
The Government tend to treat Wales as though it were the south-east of England, but our unemployment--even according to the official figures--is 9.5 per cent. I understand, however, that there have been no fewer than 24 changes in the method of compiling the statistics, and those changes have taken off the register many thousands of people perfectly capable of a normal day's work. Admittedly, the number of unemployed people has fallen in the past year or so, but we could ask who put it up in the first place. I feel that a little modesty in certain quarters would not go amiss. Even allowing for recent improvements, with the same method of compiling the statistics, unemployment is still roughly double what is was when Labour left office in 1979.
Unemployment is only one facet of our argument. Health problems in Wales compare unfavourably with just about any region. We have the highest proportion of pre-1918 housing and so many of those properties lack even basic amenities. I could say much more besides. It is
Column 290hardly the time for the Government to bring forward a proposal to double tolls on the Severn bridge, when logic demands that they should be abolished.
When we examine the finances of the bridge, the position becomes simply farcical. The total cost of building the Severn crossing, comprising the Severn bridge, the Wye bridge and viaduct and the approach roads with all ancillary equipment was £14,362,334. That figure includes £1,710,143 in respect of interest capitalised during construction. The bridge was opened in September 1966 by Her Majesty the Queen, since when, until 31 March 1988, £48,547,086 has been collected in tolls. The bridge was paid for originally out of the Consolidated Fund, so there was no bank loan, yet I am now told that the debt on the bridge was £85,469,667 at 31 March 1988. All those statistics are from very recent parliamentary answers. The basic figures are the cost of construction at about £14 million, the tolls collected at more than £48 million, and the debt of £85 million. It has to be recognised that those figures are nearly 12 months out of date. To add insult to injury, I am told that the debt on the bridge will be finally discharged in 2006, if the Government's proposal to double the toll charges is carried through. In other words there are to be 40 years of a superimposed Government tax on a depressed region.
The Government have the cheek to blame the Labour Government. The Thatcher Administration has been in office for nearly 10 years, with a large majority throughout. The Labour party was elected at the end of 1964 with a wafer-thin majority. The legislation for the Severn bridge had already been prepared by the late Mr. Ernest Marples, the then Minister for Transport. Welsh Labour Members had earlier tended to dissociate themselves from the crossing project because of the imposition of tolls. Also, when Labour was in power, unemployment was minimal compared with what it has been in recent years--so the need to remove tolls was not so urgent.
Still, the principle of a toll-free bridge has always been relevant. In bygone years, our Welsh ancestors fought bitterly over a similar principle, and their fight was symbolised by the famous Rebecca riots.
In a letter to me dated 9 February, the Secretary of State for Wales said :
"the main demand is to proceed as quickly as possible with the building of a second crossing".
He went on :
"This we will do."
Yet the response of the Department of Transport has been ringed about with ifs, buts and maybes. It has repeatedly stated that a second crossing will be provided if traffic needs justify it and Parliament decides to build it.
Now there are weird Government plans for a privately funded project. The £200 million estimated cost would be attractive to a private developer only if tolls were sky-high. What if tolls on the new crossing are significantly higher than on the present bridge? Motorists would tend not to use the new private crossing. That provides us with a clue to the reason for the proposal to double charges on the existing bridge--to make the whole proposition more attractive to private capital. That is a cynical exercise on the part of the Government.
What is the state of the bridge? In an Adjournment debate a few years ago, I revealed the contents of a report that until then had been secret and which had been written by an internationally renowned firm of consulting