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Mr. Anderson : Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the difference between the time of the Labour Government and now is that in the 1970s there was an advanced form of regional policy and regional structures, but those structures have been progressively dismantled in the past 10 years under a Conservative Government? My hon. Friend cited the example of Gwent. The further west one goes, the greater the disincentives resulting from the dismantling.
Mr. Jones : My hon. Friend has put his finger on the issue. The Government are dismantling regional policies, and we know that that is injurious to the economy of south Wales. The Government's proposal will not help the economy of south-east Wales and elsewhere--
Column 537Mr. Jones : There are inconsistencies. For example, regional economic policies are operating across south Wales in a bid to regenerate the economy. Most of south Wales has assisted area status and qualifies for regional aid and other incentives. The Secretary of State for Wales has launched his so-called valleys programme as a recognition of the problems of south Wales.
The Government's proposal to double the tolls on the Severn bridge runs against their professed objective of a regional policy in south Wales. Increased tolls, on the quickest and most efficient route into south Wales are being proposed when local authorities, the Welsh Development Agency and other Government agencies are trying to attract business to the region.
An increase in tolls will be a further burden on Welsh business. High interest rates are hitting businesses in south Wales. The region has suffered redundancies at the Hoover plant and the Freight Transport Association has expressed its astonishment and dismay at the proposed doubling of tolls. The FTA states :
"Contrary to the Government's claim that the present tolls are lower in real terms than they were 20 years ago, the present toll for lorries is 800 per cent. higher than it was in 1968, which is an increase of 25 per cent. in real terms."
If the toll were to be doubled, it would have risen by 1,600 per cent. over 20 years--an increase of 135 per cent. in real terms. Mr. Allason rose--
There is also the interesting question of how valid Department of Transport traffic forecasts are. To be lawful, the Secretary of State must ensure that the income produced by the toll does not exceed the required purposes set out in the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965. At the time when the Government's proposal to increase tolls was announced, the Secretary of State for Transport stated that he had used traffic forecasts not available at the time of the inquiry. One assumes that they were consistent with those presented at the inquiry, but how can the Government be certain that the inspector would have arrived at the same conclusion, had the new traffic forecast been before him? That seems a highly irregular and dubious way of arriving at such an important decision.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Jones : I do not propose to give way. I note that the hon. Gentleman who seeks to intervene represents a Merseyside constituency. There seems to be only one Welsh Back Bencher present on the Conservative side of the House. One wonders what has become of the others.
Mr. Marland : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on that utter irrelevance. It is not only those right hon. and hon. Members who reside in Wales who have an interest in the subject. I represent the royal forest of Dean--
Mr. Jones : It is interesting to note that there is only one Welsh Back Bencher present on the Conservative side. One wonders where the others are. We thought it important to pray against the order because we know of the significance of the increased tolls and how injurious they will be to the economy of south Wales. Where are Conservative Back Benchers from Wales when this important measure is being debated? They are not here.
Mr. Jones : Conservative Members do not properly comprehend that the order will cause a great deal of damage to the economy of south Wales. While Labour and other Opposition Members are present in the Chamber in force, Welsh Conservative Members are not. I am sure that the people of Wales will draw the correct conclusion from that. It is highly insensitive of the Government to propose a major increase in Severn bridge tolls at this time. When the Prime Minister addressed the Conservative party conference in Wales in the early 1980s, she had the insensitivity to suggest that unemployed Welsh people should go to England to find jobs. A British Prime Minister said that in Swansea, at a Conservative party conference. Now we find that, as recently as two weeks ago, the same Prime Minister visited a Welsh valley and had the insensitivity to say in an area of high unemployment, "Cheer up--all will be well." Opposition Members will be cheered up when the Prime Minister loses the general election and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition enters No. 10 Downing street, as he will surely do.
Gwent county council is against the increase in tolls, as are the county councils in South Glamorgan, Mid Glamorgan and West Glamorgan. The entire Opposition are against this unjustifiable increase, and I invite the House to vote against it.
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins) : One could reasonably be misled by the theatrical, synthetic and even--dare I say-- televisual views of the Opposition Members into thinking that the recently announced Severn bridge tolls increase represents a device to tax the Welsh economy. The truth is that the increase to £1 for cars and £2 for lorries and coaches is very modest : it merely raises the car toll to a level that is, in real terms, virtually the same as that charged when the bridge opened in 1966. We have done no more and no less than the Labour party did when it was in government.
It was a Labour Government who decided that, to speed the provision of a Severn crossing and the benefits
Column 539that it would bring the Welsh economy, the crossing should be tolled. The bridge was first tolled under the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965, which was promoted by a Labour Government, and tolls have been charged ever since.
Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I see that, although only two Conservative Members from Wales are present for a debate that is crucial to the Welsh economy, one is present on the Front Bench. Why is a Welsh Minister not answering the debate?
In a brief intervention, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office invited the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside to tell us what a future Labour Government might do if presented with their own original legislation requiring an increase in tolls. I am more than happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to say what he would do if he became Welsh Secretary.
Mr. Barry Jones : There will be a Labour Government, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will head it. The aim of that Government will always be to ensure that tolls in Wales do not increase ; nevertheless, over a period we shall wish to see a reassessment of tolls as they affect communities in particular estuarial roads. The Minister is asking a hypothetical question two and a half years before a Labour Government come to power. The certainty of that Government I concede to him ; what they do must wait until they take office.
Mr. Atkins : I am tempted to say that the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. His answer speaks volumes. It is Labour Government legislation that provides for tolls to be raised if there is a need to meet a debt. The hon. Gentleman cannot answer a direct question without flannelling.
Dr. Thomas rose --
Dr. Thomas rose --
Mr. Atkins : I have no intention of giving way more often than the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside gave way. You may recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that he spoke without once looking at this side of the House. He concentrated his attention on other things, not a million miles away from the television camera. I intend to answer the debate in the way that it should be answered by dealing with the facts.
Column 540Nobody disputes the importance of the bridge to south Wales. It is so important that in 1956-- [Interruption.] The attitude of Opposition Members, who have raised the matter by means of a Prayer, is puzzling. Surely they want to hear the answer. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I listened to the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside. The least that the Opposition can do is to listen to the facts as presented. That would have demonstrated the sweet reasonableness of Opposition Members, which we are led to believe Mr. Mandelson is trying to inculcate in them. However, they are not prepared to listen.
I shall try to continue and to deal with the matters that relate to tolls.
In 1956, a local authority-led consortium submitted to the Minister of the day a scheme for a Severn crossing that included the proposal that it should be paid for over 30 years--not, as at present, over 40 years--by tolls. The proposed toll was 7s 6d., which is equivalent to about £3 today. Why all this synthetic nonsense over an increase to £1 for cars and £2 for lorries? The public ought to be made aware of the Opposition's synthetic, faked nonsense.
Mr. Atkins : I said that I would not give way to the Opposition, but the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside gave way once to his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), so I shall give way to one of my hon. Friends.
Mr. Sayeed : The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) gave way to his hon. Friend only because he hoped for a friendly intervention. He said that the Freight Transport Association had stated that, lorry for lorry, tolls had increased during the last 20 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if it had quoted tonne for tonne, which is a much more important figure, a very different figure would have emerged?
Any increase in tolls is likely to lead to objections. Under the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965--a Labour Government Act--there is provision for a public inquiry by an independent inspector to listen to objections.
Before the tolls order was made, the proposed increase was the subject of an exhaustive public inquiry in February and March this year in Avon and Gwent, at which representatives of the Welsh local authorities, some Opposition Members and several other objectors were given every opportunity to make their cases. All the evidence was carefully considered by the inspector when he made his report. He concluded that the proposed increases in tolls would not have a detrimental effect on Wales. I emphasise that that was the conclusion of an independent inspector. Above all, he concluded that the increases proposed by my Department were necessary and should be implemented. However, after weighing the costs and the benefits of the bridge to regular car commuters, the inspector recommended that the discount on books of toll tickets sold for that purpose should be increased from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent.
Column 541In making the order, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport relied on the inspector's very thorough examination of the arguments for and against the toll increases. However, in his decision letter of 7 September, my right hon. Friend did not accept one of the inspector's recommendations. The inspector believed that the ratio of tolls currently charged between cars and heavy goods vehicles did not reflect the wear and tear caused by the heavier vehicles. He therefore recommended that the 10 per cent. discount on books of pre- paid vouchers for lorries and coaches should be ended. My right hon. Friend considered that recommendation carefully and concluded, having regard to his wish not to deter commerce between England and Wales, that he could not accept it. That was a very reasonable approach, and a sign that we listen to and sometimes overrule inspectors.
Mr. Atkins : I should say something about the background of the Government's policy on tolls, against which this increase should be seen. It is worth noting how little Government policy towards the tolling of estuarial crossings has changed over the years, including the years when the Labour party was in office. We must remember that the Act introducing tolls on the Severn bridge was passed in 1965 under a Labour Government.
This Government's policy towards the tolling of estuarial crossings was set out clearly in a memorandum submitted by my Department to the Select Committee on Transport in April 1985. That memorandum explained that, over the past 30 years, successive Governments have maintained the policy of charging tolls on major estuarial crossings. That reflected the high cost of provision and the exceptional benefits to users conferred by large reductions in journey lengths. In that memorandum in April 1985, my Department made the very valid point that tolls had enabled substantial and useful additions to be made to the transport infrastructure which otherwise might have been much delayed or not provided at all.
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister who is speaking for the Government on an issue as vital to the economy of Wales as the tolls on the Severn bridge not to give way to Opposition Members who want to question him about points that he has raised--
Mr. Wigley : On a different point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not unreasonable for a Minister, who should be answerable to the House, to address his remarks to Conservative Members from England while totally ignoring representations made by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and by other hon. Members of the House?
Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath) : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a matter of courtesy that Front-Bench Members should address their remarks to the Chair and not to hon. Members?
Mr. Atkins : You are very kind to support me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have made a point of addressing my remarks through you, as opposed to the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), who addressed his remarks not to the House but to the height above me. I have been careful to address my remarks through the Chair.
I said that I would give way as often as the hon. Gentleman did. I know the hon. Gentleman to be a reasonable man. On many occasions we have agreed on other matters. He knows that as well as I do. It is most untypical of him that he should not feel able to give way. The hon. Gentleman said that this is a short debate and that he could not give way, so, in all reasonableness, I should not give way, so that all hon. Members can participate in the debate.
The memorandum to which I referred also noted that that the view of the inspector--
Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall) rose --
Mr. Atkins : The memorandum also noted the view of the inspector in the 1979 tolls inquiry that the Welsh local authorities then opposed to tolls had not originally opposed them when--lo and behold--they had seen them as a way of getting the Severn bridge built. Does that not fly in the face of the theatrical activities of Opposition Members in representing those authorities to be as opposed as they are, when at that time they were not?
The inspector at the recent inquiry accepted that the present Government's policy on tolls was quite clear. He also said that, although he would report to the Secretary of State any views on that policy expressed at the inquiry, it would not be for him to make recommendations that related to the merits of the policy. That has set the policy background.
I now refer to the substance of the order. The order must, of course, have regard to the relevant legislation. My right hon. Friend's power to levy tolls is contained in the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965, which was enacted under a Labour Government. Section 1 of the Act provides that my right hon. Friend may levy tolls. Sections 2 and 19 enable him to make orders setting out toll levels for classes of vehicles. Section 3 prescribes the procedure for making orders. Section 4 provides for a toll period of 40 years, with the possibility of extensions for five years. It also limits the tolls which may be levied.
I should explain that the bridge is financed from the Consolidated Fund. However, to set a limit to the power to levy tolls, the Act introduced the concept of users paying for it by means of a loan. The limitation in section 4(2) of the Act is framed to that effect. Schedule 2 to the Act specifies seven purposes to which--
Column 543Madam Deputy Speaker : That question is usurping the time of the House.
Mr. Atkins : Schedule 2 to the Act specifies seven purposes to which revenue may be applied. Taken together, for present purposes, they amount to the whole cost of providing, maintaining, operating and improving the bridge.
My Department's statement to the public inquiry explained that a tolls increase was necessary to achieve the aim of paying the costs of the bridge by the end of the 40-year period specified in the Severn Bridges Tolls Act 1965. My right hon. Friend was satisfied that that, without an increase, that aim could not be achieved. In the years 1981-82 to 1984-85, the income from tolls did not even cover operating costs. The published accounts showed an overall annual deficit growing from £1.6 million in 1979-80 to £10.4 million in 1987-88. By 31 March 1989, the debt on the bridge had risen from £14.4 million on opening to £113.4 million. It is clear to any reasonable person that, without a tolls increase, the deficit would have grown indefinitely.
The Department's statement also explained that the increase proposed was intended to provide for an estimated £50 million spread over the years 1988-89 to 1990-91 for the balance of the costs of strengthening and repair work to the bridge which still remain to be done. [Interruption.] I should--if hon. Members want to hear the reason for the tolls increase as opposed to speaking-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Atkins : Well, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside, who I see has vanished-- [Interruption.] No, I beg his pardon. The hon. Gentleman who began the debate wanted me to answer this point, and I am endeavouring to explain for the benefit of all those in the House and outside--
We explained that there was a great need to carry out a degree of strengthening work and my right hon. Friend was satisfied that without the increase, the aim would not be achieved. The current programme of strengthening work is soon to be completed and a programme of resurfacing will be under way shortly. The total cost is likely to be £74 million.
The work is designed to upgrade the bridge for the future ; it is not in any sense a reflection upon the quality of the original design of the bridge, which was built fully in accordance with the standards that then applied. The design was not in any way experimental. However, in 1966 when the bridge was opened--
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) rose
Mr. Atkins rose--
Mr. Flynn : There is discretion in the House to limit speeches during major debates to 10 minutes. Is it not right that, in a debate of limited duration, speeches should not go on for 20 minutes, as the Minister's has? Should we not exercise some discretion?