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Mr. Atkins : I strongly resent the imputation from Opposition Members that, having sought to pray against an order that comes under the legislation that they passed when in Government, they should accuse me of delaying the debate when I seek to respond to the debate and to give the facts that they have demanded from me. I resent that suggestion, and I throw it back in their faces.
Mr. Marland : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely disgraceful that the debate should be hogged by Welsh Members of Parliament, now known as the "Taffia", who totally disregard the interests of any English hon. Members such as myself, on whose constituencies th bridge has a great effect? I too am anxious to make a contribution to the debate.
Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend has reminded me that I have not yet spoken for as long as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside. I have endeavoured to provide the House with a full account, albeit foreshortened, of our careful stewardship of the Severn bridge. That stewardship is consistent with the obligations of the legislation that was enacted when the Labour party was in power and is consistent with current Government policy on the tolling of roads and bridges. Opposition Members may regret the lack of consistency between their past actions and their present policies, but this Government have been consistent and will continue to be so. In the interests of the debate, I urge my hon. Friends to reject the motion.
Column 54511.4 pm
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East) : The order is crucial to the future economic well-being of Wales. It is intended to authorise the doubling of toll charges on the Severn bridge, which is the principal access point to Wales on what is merely a short stretch of the M4. This morning when I passed over the bridge it was noticeable that the new prices were already in place before they had been discussed here--[ Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"] If the charges are introduced, many of my constituents and many people in neighbouring constituencies will be badly affected financially.
In recent years there have been massive redundancies in the steel industry and one pit after another has closed. In Gwent, one of the most populated Welsh counties, not one coal mine is left. Many people, having been put out of work, took the advice of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) who told them to get on their bikes. They did not do that, but they got into their cars and sought employment on the other side of the estuary. As a reward for their initiative, they are to be asked to pay £10 a week in toll charges. They must earn £14 a week, before tax, to meet that toll commitment. Surely travel to work and travel connected with business should not be taxed.
The effect of the toll charges is not only localised ; the entire economic life of Wales is being retarded by them. The proposal to double the tolls could be the straw that breaks the camel's back as the Severn bridge is the main point for getting in and out of Wales. I appreciate that a good case can be made for the abolition of tolls on estuarial crossings. The Select Committee on Transport recognised that in its second report published on 19 February 1986 when it unanimously recommended their abolition. Unfortunately, the Government turned down that proposal. However, that is not the issue being debated tonight.
Most of the dozen or so tolled estuarial crossings are outside the south- east of England. Tolls on estuaries such as the Severn, the Humber, the Mersey, the Forth and the Tay restrict movement in many of the great old industrial centres of the north and west. Regional imbalance is as great as ever, with prosperity and wealth gravitating towards the south-east of England. At a stroke the abolition of toll charges would help to create more balanced economic development throughout the country. The House's rejection of the order would be a major step in the right direction.
Tolls are iniquitous. Responsible motoring organisations such as the Royal Automobile Club have said that they are prefectly perpared to accept other forms of motoring taxation were toll charges abolished.
I ask right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to reflect on the fact that toll charges are an inefficient means of raising revenue. For instance, the total cost of collection on the Severn bridge is £2.6 million per annum. That figure comprises an estimated £1.73 million in delays to motorists, £850,000 in the direct cost of collection, and £100,000 in the disbenefit to traffic dissuaded from using the bridge by tolls. The Severn bridge toll produces a revenue of about £10 million annually, 26 per cent. of which is consumed in its collection. Even the poll tax cannot match that inefficiency.
Column 546In a statement in January this year in support of the proposal to double toll charges, the Department of Transport said :
"The Government is willing to consider reasoned argument for special treatment in particular cases."
Surely with unemployment in Wales above the national average we are a special case. I have already referred to regional imbalance when comparing Wales with the south-east of England. With industrial rates at 15 per cent. and Britain teetering on the brink of an economic recession, this is the time for the special consideration to which the Department of Transport referred.
Why not make a start tonight by setting aside this order? We should also consider the fact that the bridge is in a bad state, and resurfacing work will not be completed until the end of next year. Lanes on the bridge are perilously thin. There are frequent hold-ups and journey times cannot be guaranteed. This is hardly the time for the Government to come forward with a proposal to double toll charges.
Finally, I turn to the Secretary of State for Wales. Where is this gladiator whom Welsh newspaper editors have been telling us for so long will cure unemployment in Wales, re-beautify our former mining valleys and so on? Honeyed words and gift-wrapped packaging are one thing, but on the issue of toll charges on the Severn bridge, which is of such prime importance to the economic well-being of Wales, the Secretary of State has not raised his head above the parapet. For all the effect that he has had on this issue, the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) might have spent his time hop-picking. The real champion of Wales has been the standing conference on regional policy, consisting of our four county councils : Gwent, mid, west and south Glamorgan. The councillors know and understand Wales and have recognised from the outset the significance of the toll issue. I am glad that tonight the Labour party opposes the order and I sincerely hope that it will be rejected.
Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North) : It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) in this debate, for he has significantly raised the standard of debate among the Labour Members. The hon. Gentleman has long had a commendable interest in this subject, although there have been times when he should have been more cautious and not gone over to the top. It is easy to say no to the toll order. It is easy to come out and say no when one is in opposition. It is equally fair to ask what the Opposition did when they were in Government. But it is irresponsible to say no to the toll order. Any realist knows full well that the cost of the bridge must still be met.
We listened for 22 minutes to what I could most charitably describe as waffle from the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). When the Minister sought to draw him out, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside refused point blank to say what he would do in the future. It was only when my hon. Friend the Minister invited the
Column 547hon. Gentleman back to the Dispatch Box that the admission was at last dragged grudgingly from him that the Labour party would keep and reassess tolls. Are not those weasel words for saying that the Labour party would do exactly the same, if it were ever to form a Government again, as it did when it was previously in power?
All we are hearing is hypocrisy. I oppose that, just as I oppose the alternative Labour policy. When a certain Labour Member came to Cardiff to debate the issue, he advocated that the cost of the bridge be transferred from tolls to the four county councils in south Wales--Gwent and mid, west and south Glamorgan. I utterly oppose that idea. It would affect everyone in those counties, but not people at the other end of the bridge. The bridge still has to be paid for, and it is much better that those who use it should contribute. It is of considerable benefit, whatever the hon. Member for Newport, East says.
I can give an example of the bridge's benefits from personal experience. Returning to the House from my constituency to vote in a Division on which there was a three-line Whip, I discovered that the bridge was closed. The alternative route through Chepstow could not cope with the traffic, and it was impossible to get back to the House in time. I reflected, as I sat stuck in a traffic jam on the M4, that I would cheerfully have paid £1 and more to get over the bridge.
Mr. Marland : When my hon. Friend was unable to get over the Severn bridge, did he take a detour through the Forest of Dean? One of the issues that I hope to raise later in the debate is the fact that, if the bridge is closed, there are the most murderous traffic jams on the A48 through the Forest of Dean.
I suggest that we make progress. We must have no more of Labour's campaign of denigration of the bridge. The Confederation of British Industry tells us that that campaign has already put off investors who might have come to south Wales to set up businesses and factories. It is a tremendous bridge and a gateway to south Wales. 11.17 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who has been a doughty campaigner for the reduction of tolls on the Severn bridge, which is the umbilical cord to south Wales. We are discussing a principle. My party's view is that there should be no tolls on the bridge. We should have to discuss such a tax on the Welsh people. Increases of 100 per cent. are proposed for cars and lorries, but I have looked in vain for any proposed increase for stalking horses.
As a result of disruption on the bridge, due to poor planning and poor management, businesses in Wales and west Gloucestershire have suffered severe economic losses. It is not good enough to put tolls up with the bridge in its present state. It should be compared with the Victorian engineering of the Severn tunnel, which cannot be seen or heard and on which there are no tolls. If the principle of tolls was evoked there, every train would have to stop and someone would have to go around collecting tolls from passengers. There is only one problem with the Severn
Column 548tunnel--it will not get a direct link to the continent after 1993--but I suppose that we shall have to put up with that. That is also a slight to Wales, as are the toll increases.
There has been an appalling lack of infrastructure investment in Wales. I cannot understand why there has not been more planning for a second Severn crossing. There has been a lack of estimates of the volume of traffic crossing the bridge and on the M25, which is an essential link from Wales to the continent. Transport contractors in south Wales have told us that because of delays on the Severn bridge and the M25 on weekdays it takes lorries seven hours to travel from south Wales to the continent, whereas on Sundays it takes only four. That results in economic losses.
We do not know whether the order will set a precedent for increased tolls on the second Severn bridge when it comes. We have been assured that it will be built by the mid-1990s and I hope that the Minister will assure us of that. If it is delayed further, costs will escalate. In this debate we seek precise details about what will occur in relation to that second crossing--what levels of tolls will be imposed, how many lanes will there be on the bridge and what are the traffic forecasts for both crossings by the year 2000. The proposal is undoubtedly being introduced as a tax on British Steel, Ford, British Coal, Hoover, Sony, Hitachi, the new Bosch developments in south Wales, and Panasonic. It will also be a tax on the Irish transport system, which uses the M4, and on tourism in Wales.
This is a most inappropriate order and there is no justification for it. There should not be tolls on the Severn bridge. The Government should ensure a free flow of traffic and no losses caused by delays of the kind that occur at present.
Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) : Despite Labour protests, I should like to emphasise how important the Severn bridge is to constituents outside Wales and on the borders. It has a big impact on west Gloucestershire.
When the bridge is open and trouble-free, hundreds of people flood across from the Forest of Dean to their work on the other side of the river. Where there are difficulties the hold-ups are enormous. I am glad that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench recognise the significance of this project for--
My hon. Friends on the Front Bench recognise the significance of the Severn crossing for the infrastucture in the district. That is why plans are being laid for the construction of a second crossing. When from time to time the Severn bridge is closed, the impact on the A48 which runs through my constituency is murderous. It is impossible to cross the road because of the number of lorries driving nose to tail up the A48 to Gloucester.
I welcome the discounts, but doubling the toll is a significant increase. At the old rate, 50 crossings cost the
Column 549private motorist £25, but that will be increased to £40, taking the discounts into account. Is that enough? As some hon. Members have said, haulage operators face an even bigger increase and there is no doubt that many drivers will seek alternative routes. Closure of the Severn bridge has a massive impact on my constituency and on the people who live there.
In many respects the discounts that are offered seem stingy. I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of increasing the discounts for regular users on whom the increase in toll charges will have the biggest impact. Hon. Members have spoken about developing businesses in south Wales, the Forest of Dean and elsewhere. Whether such businesses will regularly use the bridge remains to be seen, but those who use it regularly for business purposes should be offered more than a 20 per cent. discount.
I have emphasised several times and emphasise again the impact of the closure of the Severn bridge on the Forest of Dean. The hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) was right to say that if the cost becomes too high drivers will look for alternatives. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), when the bridge is closed for repairs people look for alternative routes and too many of them use the A48 through the Forest of Dean. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to put in a plug for improvements to the A48. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey). The A48 is a trunk road but the improvements have to be made by the county council. Gloucestershire county council is currently controlled by the Liberals.
Mr. Marland : I am doing that. When the Severn bridge is closed or when the price goes up, drivers look for alternative routes and they choose the A48. Sadly, Gloucestershire county council, which is controlled by the Liberals, is steadfastly refusing to improve the A48. Despite what the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor said, I hope that he will encourage Gloucestershire county council to do something about that road and instigate some improvements.
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to put to the House propositions that are quite wrong? If the A48 is a trunk road the Department of Transport should pay the bill, not the county council.
Mr. Marland : I assure the House that I am 100 per cent. accurate. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) has again demonstrated the lack of commitment of the Liberal party in Gloucestershire county council to the Forest of Dean. It is a tragedy for people who live there that Gloucestershire county council does so little to help those who have to take a detour when they cannot cross the Severn bridge. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give greater discounts to regular users of the bridge.
Column 550Sadly, while we are waiting for the second Severn crossing to be constructed, I cannot endorse the increase in the cost of crossing the Severn bridge.
Mr. Atkins rose --
Mr. Wigley : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Under Standing Orders, is it not possible for the debate to go on for an hour and a half? Why is it not possible to call representatives of all the parties in Wales instead of continuously calling Conservative Members, as is happening?
Mr. Rowlands : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does the Minister require the leave of the House to speak a second time? If so, should he be given leave to speak again in view of the disgraceful and supercilious speech he made earlier, especially as other hon. Members should have an opportunity to speak?
Mr Morgan : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Could the Minister also be given an opportunity to correct the misleading advice he gave earlier, when he said that the original toll set at 12 was now worth £1, when it is clear from the inspector's advice--
It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Prayers against statutory instruments, &c. (negative procedure) ).
The House divided : Ayes 194, Noes 239.
Division No. 2] [11.30 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John