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Mr. Chapman: Indeed, and things might be done better if a board of directors had appropriate expertise on it. I am not impugning the motives of those on the MPTA, but I think that things could be done better. I asked questions about the qualifications of people assigned to PTAs or fire authorities or police authorities, and the response came that none are sought and none are particularly held.
Mr. Howarth: I do not understand why my hon. Friend cannot accept the simple fact that the qualification of members of PTAs is the fact that they have been elected as local councillors in their own areas and that they, as individual members of the authority, have the confidence of those councils that have sent them to sit on that body.
Mr. Chapman: I am sorry that my hon. Friend takes that view. I am trying to describe a way in which the Mersey tunnels might be run more efficiently, and I am determined so to do. The organisation has 880 staff, 320 of whom work in tunnel operations. I am determined to examine whether the balance between administrators and deliverers is right. I have asked any number of people on Merseyside to guess the number of people involved in running the tunnel for Merseytravel and the tunnel police, and nobody has ever come near guessing the actual numbers.
I have no doubt that the workers are dedicated, committed and hard-working. However, we need an effective management structure, and I am not sure that we have one. In questioning that, I am posing questions not only about the MPTA but about PTAs generically, and that is appropriate, especially as the point was originally raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. Operationally, Merseytravel is responsible for the tunnels and the ferries. Administrative matters such as timetables, pensioners' passes, bus subsidies and fast tags are not operational matters as such. If I were on the board of Merseytravel, I would want to examine the degree of overhead that was involved.
The proponents of the Bill said that by increasing tolls at the rate of inflation, their proposals would be administratively simple. That may be true, but it would not necessarily make them justifiable. The Bill would give no right of appeal on inflationary increases either to the MPTA or to the Secretary of State. That is not right. At the moment, if Merseytravel wishes to increase the tunnel tolls and some groups object to that, a public inquiry process has to be followed. That gives people the opportunity to give evidence for and against the issue. The effect of the Bill would be to take away that right, so it is even more important that those groups that would be affected are given an opportunity to give their evidence before that right is taken away. That is something that Merseytravel has attempted to prevent, although it failed to do so at the Court of Referees.
I do not think it right to use the RPI. Mr. Fleming, the Federation of Small Businesses representative at the Court of Referees, said that the move to raise prices in line with inflation sounds good, but that people have to remember that the normal rate of RPI is based on a basket of prices for products such as food and fuel, and so on. He said that an annual RPI of 5 per cent. does not apply to the Mersey tunnel or to public utilities, because they do not eat food and or use fuel. In a nutshell, Mr. Fleming said that Merseytravel was not just trying to balance the books, but that it was trying to create cash using the RPI index proposal.
The proponents of the Bill say that the proposal will make revenue forecasting easier, but I am not so sure. When Mersey tunnel price increases have been pursued through the public inquiry process, they have always been granted. If a case is justifiable, there is no reason why it should not be granted.
The proponents say that an increase in tunnel tolls would increase use of other transport, as if people drove back and forth through the tunnels for fun. I have discovered today that the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) does just that.
Mr. Wareing: Does not my hon. Friend agree that if Merseytravel had not introduced a Bill in November 1999 but had applied instead for a toll increase, that proposal would have completed the public inquiry stage already? That original Bill, incidentally, contained an element of privatisation. By now, a small toll increase would have been secured. Instead, Merseyside's council tax payers have had to fund parliamentary advisers, public relations people and others to draft this Bill, and its predecessor.
The Bill's proponents postulate that raising the tolls would increase the use of other transport, but I doubt that other forms of transport are up to the job. I have a mental picture of people sitting at home on spare afternoons and choosing to go for a drive through the tunnel. I fear that people do not do thatalthough the hon. Member for Southport is an exception. The scenario is unlikely. People go through the tunnel because they have to.
The local train and bus services are no great shakes. My mailbag is full of complaints. I shall say more about that later, as I shall about the ferries. The alternative to the tunnels is the Runcorn bridge, but that involves a round trip of nearly 50 miles. The bridge is massively congested, and the Halton authority is seeking an additional Mersey crossing to alleviate the burden.
It is worth noting that the authority that supposedly manages, operates and maintains the tunnels levies tolls, from which the income is used to defray operational costs and the expenses involved in paying off the principal of moneys borrowed to finance the construction and operation of the tunnels. The authority also makes payments to maintain a reserve fund in respect of the tunnels. That seems to me to be exactly appropriate: money raised from the tunnels should be used for the tunnels, without any element of cross-subsidisation.
Mr. George Howarth: I am trying to follow my hon. Friend's logic. He seems happy with cross-subsidisation when it means that my constituents subsidise those who travel through the tunnel, but he objects to it when it works in the opposite direction.
Stephen Hesford: Will my hon. Friend reflect on why the burden was devolved to the five local authorities? It was because the previous Conservative Government refused to allow Merseytravel's predecessor to raise the money in the way that it wanted, so it was forced to raise the precept?
The measure proposes a form of hypothecation that is entirely without precedent in private Bill provision. I am not against hypothecation in all circumstances but it needs to be tightly definedthere must be horses for courses. In any case, it appears from the MPTA's pronouncements that the matter will be dropped for a few years while the safety measures are implemented.
There is provision in other funding mechanisms for transport schemes. Have steps been taken to examine those sources? Cities in other parts of the north-west have managed to create substantial projects without recourse to a private Bill such as this one. They do not have the same problems as Merseyside, but they do not receive objective 1 funding. Merseyside has that advantage although it has disadvantages. Why does an area with recourse to objective 1 funding need a Bill such as this? Is it another cop-out? Is there a lack of the financial engineering that is needed to put together projects that involve a multiplicity of funding schemesmatching contributions and so on? Perhaps the proponents could specify what has been done to find sources other than the mechanism that we are discussing?
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am deeply concerned about some of my hon. Friend's comments. He has implied that the management structure of Merseytravel is excessive and that its reduction would lower the costs of the organisation. He has inferred that the tunnel is overstaffed in terms of the number of police and, I guess, operators. Do I rightly understand that his principal objection is that the tunnel infrastructure is overstaffed and that his solution to that problem is to cut jobs