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Column 497States-United Kingdom nuclear agreement last week, which the Government extended for another 10 years. Does not he think that it is deplorable and damaging to democracy for such an agreement to be extended without the House having the opportunity to debate it and without hon. Members who oppose that nuclear strategy having the opportunity to express their opposition?
Mr. Newton: No, I do not, for reasons that I sought to explain in the letter that I sent to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) following the exchange last week. I shall arrange for a copy of that letter to be sent to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): May I follow that question? I understood when I raised the matter in the House last week that the Government were extending the treaty under the Ponsonby rule whereby, for the matter to be debated by the whole House, an hon. Member is required to object in this Chamber. I asked the Leader of the House to arrange such a debate and I have not yet received a reply. Is he saying that the Ponsonby rule is being ignored and that the House is being denied the opportunity of having the debate that the rule should require?
Mr. Newton: I am certainly not saying that. I need hardly say that I signed a reply to the hon. Gentleman earlier today and I must apologise if it has not yet reached him. I shall ensure that it does as soon as possible.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): In line with the other representations that the right hon. Gentleman has heard this afternoon, may I ask for a statement by the Secretary of State for Transport about the contract that has been awarded to GEC, which will result in 600 immediate job losses in Derby and up to 3,000 losses eventually, if no other contracts are awarded in lieu of that loss? Will the Leader of the House convey to the Secretary of State that it is not good enough saying that France has got those jobs because of the minimum wage and the social chapter? The loss is a direct result of the Government's decision to allocate that contract to GEC, which will export jobs to France. It is not good enough and the decision should be reversed.
Mr. Newton: I have already made several comments on that matter in response to entirely understandable points from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I cannot add to them, but I shall add the hon. Gentleman's representations to those that I shall communicate to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East): May we have an early opportunity to debate the figures issued through a planted written question on the single regeneration budget the other day? The Leader of the House may know that the single regeneration budget represented a massive cut in its constituent parts--the different budgets that went into it originally. He may also know that the figures released in the Budget were a cut on those announced earlier this year. At least, if we had such a debate, we would have the opportunity to discuss
Column 498the astonishing press release put out by the Secretary of State for the Environment, which claimed £800 million of new money for regeneration.
Mr. Newton: Perhaps I should declare an interest, in that one of the successful schemes was the regeneration scheme in Braintree, East. I was very pleased about that. On the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question, his remarks may simply reflect a
misunderstanding, given that one of the most notable features of the single regeneration budget is the amount of money brought in, alongside what is strictly SRB money, from other parts of the public sector and not least from the private sector. What the economists would call the gearing is immensely high and the investment is much greater than the outlay in the SRB itself.
[ That this House notes with concern the proposed loss of over 200 jobs at GEC Engineering (Accrington) as a result of the continuing recession in the aircraft industry; recognises that these redundancies are a disaster for the workforce and will cause real damage to the skills base of the East Lancashire economy; further notes that GEC is a cash rich company which recorded pre-tax profits in the last financial year of £866 million, and which can afford to bid for VSEL but apparently cannot afford to stand by its loyal workforce in Accrington; believes that GEC Engineering (Accrington) should be given further time to prove its economic viability; and therefore calls on the GEC board to defer these proposed redundancies pending talks with the trade unions, local authorities, honourable Members and other interested bodies. ]
The job losses are not merely a tragedy for my constituents, but a disgrace from a company such as GEC, which made profits of nearly £900 million last year. Given that the job losses are in a crucial defence-related industry, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the matter before the House rises for the Christmas recess?
Mr. Newton: Perhaps I had better not be unkind enough to observe some tension between the demand to prevent job losses at one part of GEC and the attacks on the award of a contract to another part of GEC. But I shall certainly take note of the hon. Gentleman's understandable concern.
Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West): Does the Leader of the House agree that the prevarication and delay that have beset the channel tunnel rail link ever since the scheme's inception mean that the House really should get down to considering that matter as soon as possible? Can the right hon. Gentleman say how soon that might be?
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): May I press the Leader of the House to have an early debate on insider share dealing? Does he appreciate that many people believe, as I do, that his noble Friend Lord Archer is guilty as sin of insider share dealing and made £80,000 in the space of a few weeks in January last year? Is he further aware that the Chancellor told me last week that the Government were keeping the law on insider dealing under review? He
Column 499will have seen from today's Financial Times that the stock exchange is bringing forward new rules on insider trading. In view of those developments, surely there is a case for an early debate on the matter.
Mr. Newton: I do not know about you, Madam Speaker, but I am getting fed up with Opposition Members using the Floor of the House to make remarks about individuals which they would not dare to make outside because it would land them in court, and I shall certainly not provide time for a debate that would enable more of the same thing to occur.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): May we have a statement tomorrow on Gibraltar? Will the Leader of the House reflect that Parliament--the Government and other parties as well--has failed to address itself to the interests of British subjects, citizens of the European Union, who are being messed around, to say the least, by the Spanish authorities? It is unacceptable for the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to pretend that they are macho in diplomatic affairs and not to address themselves to the interests of the people of Gibraltar. The House is failing them. It is time that we had a statement tomorrow on behalf of their interests, to show that Her Majesty's Government are being robust in their approaches to the Spanish Government. Secondly, we should have a debate in the House about the natural, legitimate aspirations of the people of Gibraltar for constitutional development. We are failing them.
Mr. Newton: I do not think that I can promise a statement, but the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be here to answer questions next Wednesday.
Madam Speaker: I have an announcement to make about arrangements for the debate on the motion for the Adjournment that will follow the passing of the Consolidated Fund Bill on Thursday 15 December. Hon. Members should submit their subjects to my office not later than 10 pm on Tuesday 13 December. A list showing the subjects and times will be published the following day. Usually, the time allotted will not exceed one and a half hours, but I propose to exercise a discretion to allow one or two debates to continue for rather longer, to a maximum of three hours. Where identical or similar subjects have been entered by different Members whose names are drawn in the ballot, only the first name will be shown on the list.
As some debates may not last the full time allotted to them, it is the responsibility of Members to keep in touch with developments if they are not to miss their turn.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I remained for business questions this afternoon in order to listen to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), which he also raised last week. I understand that he has now received a letter from the Leader of the House suggesting that the Ponsonby rule might not apply in this particular case.
As you, Madam Speaker, are responsible for the rights of Back Benchers, do you agree that deciding whether the Ponsonby rule applies should not merely be a matter for the Government, but one in which you should be involved?
Will you take the opportunity to read the correspondence, which I am sure that the individuals concerned will make available to you, and perhaps make a statement on Monday about whether the Ponsonby rule applies in this case? Will you also confirm whether, if we are not entitled to a debate in Government time, the subject would be suitable for the Consolidated Fund debate later next week?
Mr. Cohen: I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) says. I have had a quick glance at the letter received by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and it seems to say that the Ponsonby rule does not apply because extra money will not be spent. That is highly dubious in this case. If Britain is to move from Polaris to Trident missiles, extra money will definitely be spent. The agreement covers a 10-year period, so extra money is likely to be spent during that period. If that is the reason that the Government are giving why the Ponsonby rule should not apply, I put it to you, Madam Speaker, that that is not appropriate and, as has been said, you should consider that most carefully. The matter should be brought to the Floor of the House so that we can have an opportunity to debate it and opposition can be expressed to that nuclear weapons policy.
Madam Speaker: With regard to whether the subject would be suitable for debate on the Consolidated Fund, I can tell the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that it would be a most appropriate matter to raise then.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to "Erskine May", page 215, which says:
"When a treaty requires ratification, the Government does not usually proceed with ratification until a period of twenty-one days has elapsed from the date on which the text of such a treaty was laid before Parliament by Her Majesty's command. This practice is subject to modification, if necessary, when urgent or other important considerations arise."
Column 501For the interest of the House, I might say that the practice known as the Ponsonby rule has its origin in a departmental minute dated 1 February 1924 and signed by Mr. Arthur Ponsonby, then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I shall look at the points raised by hon. Members.
Mr. Bennett: Further to my point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South registered a protest last Thursday, so there should be a debate? I should be grateful if you considered the matter further.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees),
That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 6655/94, relating to training for maritime occupations (the `training of seafarers Directive'), 11496/93 and 7919/94, relating to a European vessel reporting system in Community waters, and 5841/94, relating to ship safety and control of pollution (the `port state control Directive'); endorses the Government's agreement to the formal adoption of the training of seafarers Directive and to a common position on the port state control Directive; and welcomes the Government's commendation to other Member States of Lord Donaldson's report Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas (Cm 2560) as a valuable contribution to discussions on the proposed European vessel reporting system.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees),
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9400/92 and the unnumbered Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Home Office on 29th November, relating to the protection of personal data; recognises that the Council of Europe Convention on data protection provides an adequate framework for data protection within the Union; believes that the Commission proposal would impose significant unnecessary bureaucratic burdens and very heavy additional and unacceptable costs for data users in the United Kingdom; remains of the view that the Directive breaches the principle of subsidiarity as provided by Article 3b of the Treaty of Rome (as inserted by the Treaty on European Union); and supports the Government's view that the case for a Community Directive on the lines proposed has not been made out.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.] Question agreed to.
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): Before my Adjournment debate, I wish to present a petition signed by approximately 10,000 electors of Pembrokeshire, which declares that they are suffering an unfair burden as a result of the level of tolls on the Cleddau bridge and that the new Pembrokeshire unitary authority will be saddled with an unacceptable level of debt when the bridge is transferred to it in April 1996.
Column 502The petition concludes:
"The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons resolves that the Secretary of State's 1979 pledge be met in full and that the Welsh Office must ensure the financial burden of the bridge does not fall on the people of Pembrokeshire."
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): As a result of the arrangements in this place, we now have an opportunity which I had not expected a couple of days ago to debate in full the complex issue and the long history of the Cleddau bridge. Basically, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you will be aware from the petition that I have just presented, the people of Pembrokeshire are extremely concerned about the financing of the Cleddau bridge, the burden that has already fallen on the people of Pembrokeshire and its industry since its opening in 1975, and the future burden that will have to be borne by council tax payers as well as motorists and haulage contractors during the period of the new Pembrokeshire unitary authority unless significant changes are made by the Government.
This is not the first time that the issue has been debated in the House. On 19 March 1990, my Conservative predecessor, Nicholas Bennett, raised the subject with the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), although, sadly, without success. Since that Adjournment debate, a number of factors relating to the Cleddau bridge have changed and make the argument that the Welsh Office should take over its running and financing even more compelling.
It would be useful if I went over the bridge's rather sad history. It was first proposed to build a bridge across the River Cleddau in 1943, during the war, and again in 1945 when it was envisaged that the crossing should be downstream of Pembroke Dock. In 1959, there was a further proposal for a barrage across the river. None of those ideas was implemented, but the plans for a bridge were revived in 1964 and the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965 granted the council permission to build a bridge to replace a ferry which had been operating between Hobbs Point on the Pembroke Dock bank and Neyland on the northern bank of the River Cleddau or, as it is also known, the Milford Haven waterway.
The House should be aware of the enormous limitation placed on Pembrokeshire's economy in the absence of a reasonable crossing between the north and south banks of the Milford Haven waterway. Before a bridge was built, if the ferry was not running due to bad weather or because it was too late at night or too early in the morning for shift workers to be about, an individual wishing to travel from Pembroke Dock to Milford Haven, which is further downstream than Neyland, would have to travel in excess of 30 miles. Clearly, it was of a matter of great importance to the Pembrokeshire economy that the natural barrier should be bridged.
Tenders were invited in 1968. The original estimate for building the then brand new box-girder design bridge was £3,640,000. On 2 June 1970, the then partially completed bridge collapsed, tragically killing four workmen and damaging a number of properties in Pembroke Ferry, the hamlet below the bridge. Following that collapse and the collapse of bridges of similar design in Melbourne, Australia and in Munich, Germany, the Merrison committee examined the technical requirements to improve the structure before work continued. The council accepted the Merrison committee's recommendations which involved significant strengthening of the structure that was still standing and,
Column 504of course, of the new completed bridge. As a result of the adoption of those recommendations, the final capital cost when the bridge opened in 1975 was not just over £3 million but £11.83 million. The bridge has always been a political football in Pembrokeshire and it is worth while noting how it was treated throughout the 1970s. During the election campaign in October 1974--six months before the bridge was officially opened--the then Member of Parliament for Pembroke, now Lord Crickhowell, speaking with the full authority of a Conservative spokesman on Welsh affairs, said that the Conservative Government, were they elected, would take over the cost of constructing a bridge and would abolish proposed tolls. He said: "When the Pembrokeshire County Council planned the construction of the bridge they knew that it would make a great difference to the local economy but they could have had no idea of its crucial significance; they could have had no idea either that they might be faced with a disaster and a threefold increase in cost. It is quite clear that the burden of over £9 million is now too great for the ratepayers to shoulder and that any government will have to take over a substantial part of that burden . . . A conservative government would take urgent action to prepare for developments in the Celtic Sea and if oil were found they would see that resources were directed in those areas affected by the discoveries . . . It is wrong that local ratepayers should have to pay for something that is of key national significance, for the benefits of offshore oil will flow to the whole nation. We have said that Wales will benefit from offshore oil; I have now shown that we are determined to make that pledge a reality."
It is worth noting that, on 2 November 1994, Marathon Oil announced the first strike of gas in the Celtic sea, 25 miles from the shores of Pembrokeshire.
Let me take the House back to 1974.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly): I would not normally intervene during an Adjournment debate, but we are not suffering the usual time constraint. For the sake of accuracy, will my hon. Friend say whether the Lord Crickhowell to whom he referred is Nicholas Edwards, the Tory party candidate in Pembroke in 1979?
In 1974, an inspector called Mr. J. R. Rawes reported on the proposed maximum tolls order on the Cleddau bridge. Paragraph 137 of his report stated that two thirds of the £11.83 million capital cost attributable to the Merrison committee's recommendation on the extra work needed to strengthen the bridge should be paid by the Exchequer. It continued:
"This financial assistance from central funds should be an outright grant, inclusive of interest and inflation".
Two thirds amounts to approximately £7 million. Inspector Rawes also said that if the county council subsequently won any damages from the designers or builders of the bridge no part of that settlement
"should be claimable by, or payable to, the National Exchequer, as the transaction derives entirely from the provisions of the 1965 Act for which Dyfed County Council are alone accountable."
The bridge opened on 20 March 1975, burdened from the outset by its tragic history and debts of some £11.83 million. Tolls were set at 15p for motor bikes, 30p for cars and 60p for heavy vehicles. Following a claim by the county council in the financial year 1978-79, it received some £3 million in insurance compensation from the designers and builders of the bridge.
Column 505The political history of the bridge did not end there. It again became a political football during the 1979 general election when the then Nicholas Edwards was still representing Pembroke. At his adoption meeting prior to the election he said that the pledge that he had given in the 1974 election to abolish tolls was no longer valid. He continued:
"A pledge made at the time of an election does not stand if the party is defeated"--
that is also true in this case or, from the experience that we have had during the past two years, when the party wins--
"but in any case the situation today is totally different from that in 1974."
Nicholas Edwards referred to the inspector's recommendation that the Government should pay for the Merrison elements, and said: "I now want to make it perfectly clear that a Conservative government would accept that recommendation and a commitment to that effect is contained in our Welsh election manifesto."
I do not need to remind my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) on the Front Bench, nor the Minister, that, following the 1979 general election, the then hon. Member for Pembroke became the Secretary of State for Wales, and on 21 December 1979, the Welsh Office gave Dyfed county council not a grant but a £4 million interest-free loan, repayable over 40 years at some £100,000 a year. That neither satisfied the commitment to pay in full the cost of the Merrison recommendations, which were £7 million; nor was it an outright grant-- it was a loan. In that year, because of the burdening debt accruing on the interest, tolls were raised--to 35p for cars and 70p for heavy vehicles. In 1985, tolls were raised again--to 50p for cars and £1 for heavy vehicles.
As I said in my opening remarks, this is not the first time the issue has been debated, and I shall refer to my predecessor's Adjournment debate of 19 March 1990. The right hon. Member for Conwy, who was then Minister of State, said that the figure of £4 million had been arrived at because of the £3 million legal settlement won by the council, which had been discounted against the deemed £7 million cost of the Merrison element.
That totally contradicted the inspector's recommendation that compensation should not be claimable by the Exchequer, and also the assurance given by the then hon. Member for Pembroke and subsequent Secretary of State for Wales, Nicholas Edwards. The right hon. Member for Conwy said in 1990 that only a loan, not a grant, could be paid, because the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965 prevented toll income being used to pay for grant-aided roads. In other words, if a grant was given, one could not charge tolls. If one insisted on doing so, one could not give a grant. That was true in 1979 when the loan of £4 million was made, but it certainly was not true when he said that in March 1990. I am not saying that the hon. Member for Conwy was trying to mislead the House, but he was incorrect, and I shall go on to that later.
In that Adjournment debate, the then Minister of State went on to say:
"Further Government assistance is not an option."--[ Official Report , 19 March 1990; Vol. 169, c. 988.]
But by then the Dyfed Act 1987 was in force. That had repealed totally the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965. In a letter to me dated 8 February 1994, the then
Column 506Minister of State repeated that the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965 prevented a grant being given and made no mention of the fact that it had been repealed. I then wrote back to him pointing out that the Act had been repealed, and in a further letter to me on 11 April this year he said:
"I accept that the Dyfed Act 1987 has now repealed the Pembrokeshire County Council Act and this Act contains no similar provision restricting the use of the toll income."
That was as true in 1990, at the time of the first Adjournment debate on the subject, as it is now in 1994.
There is therefore no legal impediment to prevent the Welsh Office from giving grant aid instead of a loan to cover the spiralling debts on the bridge. In the letter of 11 April, the Minister went on to say:
"However, the question remains as to whether the Department can justify the provision of any further assistance towards the Bridge." Perhaps the real question still remains whether the Welsh Office is willing to honour the election pledge given in 1979 now that there are no longer any legal impediments. I think that it is a question of political will.
On 26 May this year, the Minister--
Mr. Ron Davies rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman rises, it is, of course, a convention of the House that this is a Back-Bench debate. With the permission of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger), who has the Adjournment debate, other hon. Members may take part, but by tradition not from the Front Bench. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) wishes to intervene or contribute, he really should change the position where he is sitting.
Mr. Ainger: I have no objection to any hon. Member from any position in the House making a contribution to the debate. We are not pressured by time. It is an important issue--certainly for my constituents--and it touches on a number of very interesting national points as well.
On 26 May this year, the Minister of State wrote to me after I had written to request financial assistance and trunking, following a delegation that I had led with council officials from South Pembrokeshire district council, Preseli-Pembrokeshire district council and also representatives of Dyfed county council. Even though up to 9,000 vehicles a day cross that bridge, the Minister of State said that the traffic on the bridge remained mainly local. Despite efforts to contain the growing deficit, in October 1993, tolls were again raised from 50p to 75p for cars and from £1 to £1.50 for heavy goods vehicles. The tragic history to date means that when the new Pembrokeshire unitary authority comes into being on 1 April 1996, it will inherit an estimated debt of up to £40 million. I shall give a breakdown of that, because certain issues are worth examining in detail. Some £5 million of the projected debt is the remaining capital loan debt. Part of it is owed to the local authority loans pool. Some £2.65 million is the remaining interest-free loan being repaid to the Welsh Office. Another £4.8 million is the cumulative operating deficit on the bridge account, which is separate from other county council finances. More than £11 million of interest is owed to council tax payers to meet deficiencies in years when there is a deficit in the bridge account--when toll
Column 507income does not cover costs, including interest charges. Between £15 million and £20 million is also required for strengthening costs due to be incurred between 1996 and 1999 to meet European regulations that will allow heavy lorries of up to 44 tonnes on to British roads. The county engineer cannot give an accurate estimate until full engineering surveys are carried out, but his estimate is that the figure will probably work out at between £15 million and £20 million.
Dyfed's current population is about 350,000, of whom some 124,600 are band D-equivalent council tax payers. When the bridge is transferred to the new Pembrokeshire county council in April 1996 there will be only a third of the current number of council tax payers, and the burden will obviously fall far more heavily on that smaller population.
The Welsh Office has told me that the county council is really at fault for not raising tolls more often in the past to cover deficits. In his letter of 26 May, the Minister of State wrote that
"if implemented with regular proposals to increase tolls to cover the increased costs, the forecast deficits should be containable." In the same letter, he questioned the interest liability on the operating deficit--that £11 million. He said that the council "may apply interest" at 10 per cent., but had chosen not to do so thus far and could not do so retrospectively.
In fact, interest has been calculated. Sections 24 and 25 of the Dyfed Act 1987 clearly intend local taxpayers to be compensated for covering deficits. Section 25 states:
"Any deficiency in the revenue of the bridge in any financial year shall be made good in the first instance out of the reserve fund (if any) formed in connection with the bridge and if there be no such reserve fund or such reserve fund be insufficient for the purpose then out of the other moneys of the county council and in such case any such other moneys shall be repayable out of any future revenue of the bridge."
Council tax payers are to be reimbursed, and interest can be paid only out of future revenue. The £11 million plus interest may be only a paper debt, but the uncertainty should be lifted from the new Pembrokeshire county council. In 1992-93, the Department of Transport provided for expenditure of some £43.5 million for exactly the same kind of debt in connection with the Humber bridge; I shall say more about that later.
The effect of raising tolls still further could be devastating. On 22 February 1994, Huw Morse, Dyfed's county treasurer, wrote to the Minister of State giving deficit forecasts based on the cost of strengthening the bridge--a cost of between £15 million and £20 million. Those are the most up-to-date estimates; as I have said, a full engineering report would be necessary to provide a final and accurate estimate.
Mr. Morse's projections show that if the strengthening cost is at the lower end of the scale--around £15 million--and traffic grows in line with national Department of Transport forecasts, toll increases of 6.65 per cent. every year would be needed to reduce the deficit to zero by the year 2022. The deficit would peak at around £52.1 million in the year 2002, when tolls would have to be £1.34 for cars and £2.68 for heavy vehicles.
If the worst happened and the engineering cost was nearer £20 million, and if there was no traffic growth, tolls would have to rise by some 9.57 per cent. to remove the deficit by 2022. It would peak at about £62.2 million in the year 2002, when tolls would have to be £1.50 for cars and £3 for lorries.
Column 508In his letter, Mr. Morse told the Minister of State:
"As the County council is operating within a capped regime funding these costs can only be done at the expense of other services. One can imagine the critical nature of such a picture which, when added to the cash limit approach adopted for local government expenditure, will mean wholesale reductions in many of the services provided by the council.
The impact on a major county like Dyfed is devastating enough but the effect on a smaller unitary authority, possibly less than a third of its size, would be catastrophic."
At current levels, tolls are projected to take £1.8 million out of the economy in this financial year. It is worth noting that, because of the chronic unemployment from which my constituency suffers and because of the numerous defence closures announced just before the 1992 general election, the then Secretary of State for Wales set up the west Wales task force, giving it a budget of some £12.5 million over five years. That constituted £2.25 million of additional help for the west Wales economy. The contradiction is that, because the Welsh Office refused to take any action to assist in reducing the debt or the toll level, £1.8 million is now being taken out of our local economy.
The petition that I presented earlier, signed by approximately 10, 000 people, states that the burden of the Cleddau bridge should not fall on the people of Pembrokeshire. I do not want them to bear that burden, whether as motorists, commercial operators of heavy goods vehicles or council tax payers. Our economy has suffered more than its fair share in the past few years, as a result of defence closures and unemployment that has remained persistently high. In Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock, the two main towns nearest to each side of the bridge, unemployment rates were 17.8 per cent. and 12.8 per cent. respectively in October this year, on narrow base rates.
Extracting yet higher tolls to try to contain the deficit constitutes a tax on jobs. That option, and cutting services to meet the debt burden, are both unacceptable. Many people have to cross the bridge to obtain essential services: the Minister of State will know that the Withybush general hospital is based in Haverfordwest, and the 30,000 or so people who live south of the Cleddau must cross the bridge to go to the hospital for admission or to visit relatives. People living south of the river who work in Haverfordwest or Milford Haven, in the Elf or Gulf refineries, must also cross the bridge. The same is true of people living in the north of the county who work in the Texaco refinery, or at the power station on the southern side of the Milford Haven waterway.
Industry has developed on both sides of the Haven. People living on the opposite side from their workplace will have to find an additional £7.50 a week, at current levels. The Minister may know that, sadly, west Wales has one of the lowest pay levels in the United Kingdom. This additional burden is totally unfair. The Government really should accept their responsibility for both the economic well-being of the area and the whole trunk road system. The Welsh Office has been asked several times to designate the bridge part of the trunk road network, most recently in December last year. Trunking would clearly be the best solution to avoid the potential disaster that faces the new Pembrokeshire county council, along with recognition by central Government of their responsibilities. Clearly, the bridge is, in effect, part of the national road network. It is bracketed to the south by the A477, which is trunked and