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23 Oct 2002 : Column 355—continued

Mr. Howarth: Clearly my hon. Friend thinks that that is a good idea, which gives us a measure by which we can judge the length of his vision, but not necessarily the strength of his arguments.

I wish to refer to the possible consequences if we do not allow the Bill to go forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that, at the moment, the tunnels are not in deficit. He is right, so to some extent, that blunts the argument that there is any urgency. But for argument's sake, if there were a huge safety issue and the tunnel authorities had to spend money in a hurry on improving the safety of the tunnel, or on some other aspect of the tunnel management, it is possible that the tunnels could go into deficit.

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If that were to happen, the House—particularly Cheshire Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who understands the issue—should know that what will happen will be, as in 1992, that the council tax payers in my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and others will have to find the money.

Mr. Ben Chapman: This is a nice hypothetical argument, but does my hon. Friend accept that the tunnels are making an operating surplus, that the forecast is that they will make an operating surplus for some time to come, and that the scenario that he describes is an unlikely one in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Howarth: I have the highest regard for my hon. Friend, whose forecasting powers are legendary across the Wirral peninsula. On this occasion, he is making a prediction that may or may not be right. However, I hope that he will concede that we cannot see into the future; it is perfectly possible that something may go wrong that will acquire additional expenditure. If that took the tunnel authorities into deficit, there could be only one place they could go—the council tax payers. That may be a matter of some concern to my hon. Friend, just as it is to me. However, as I understand it, between 3 and 5 per cent. of my constituents—

Mr. Wareing: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will, but I should tell my hon. Friend that I am trying to make a serious speech; I am not in any way trying to prolong the debate.

Mr. Wareing: I thank my hon. Friend; this is a serious intervention. He claimed that the Mersey tunnels authority would have recourse to an increase in council tax only if a catastrophe or unforeseen circumstance occurred, but in such a situation it could apply to the Secretary of State for an increase in the tolls. There would be a public inquiry, and if the inquiry found in the authority's favour, it would be allowed to increase the tolls.

Mr. Howarth: I did not bait a trap for my hon. Friend, but had I done so, it would have been a perfect one . The truth of the matter is that it would take at least 22 months between the authority's discovering that it was in deficit and going to the Secretary of State for approval, and having a public inquiry, the funding of which would probably involve shelling out some half a million pounds. In the meantime, who would pay for it? Not this House or the Secretary of State, but council tax payers in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. All five Merseyside boroughs would have to pick up the tab. My hon. Friend's intervention was helpful, although not, I think, in the way that he intended.

Dr. Pugh: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what is being suggested is that the principle that council tax payers throughout Merseyside should be liable is good and sound?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I do not intend to go down that road, as I

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suspect that to do so would incur your censure, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, it is legitimate for me to ask whether, if we kill the Bill tonight, the House would feel comfortable with the tunnels going into deficit and my constituents having to pick up the bill in perhaps 12 or 18 months' time. The House has the constitutional right to take such a decision, but I do not think it proper for the House to say, XWe're not worried about that. If it ever happens, the constituents concerned will have to bear the consequences."

Such a situation is not entirely hypothetical; it happened exactly as I described in 1992, when the council tax payer had to pick up the tab.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman's argument is very interesting, but in what way is it consistent with that deployed in the letter—copies of which were sent to all hon. Members—from the general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen? It states that, if implemented, Merseytravel's proposals would

The general secretary's view of the Bill's effect seems rather different from that of the hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been listening carefully, so perhaps there has been some inadequacy in the way in which I have expressed myself. I am talking about what will happen if the Bill is not passed, but the hon. Gentleman is describing what might happen if it is. I do not blame him for misunderstanding me; it is clear that, on this occasion, my powers of expression were not up to it. There is a world of difference between what he and I are describing.

I do not want to take up any more time. I am anxious that progress be made and that all hon. Members with something to say are able to say it. All we are asking is that decisions about the level of tolls should be made by the Merseyside PTA. Any change in the level would be index-linked to inflation. What is wrong with that? Why should the House prevent the PTA from having the power to make such decisions? Why is it so attached to the idea that the appropriate way to determine tolls involves the Secretary of State and a public inquiry?

I do not think that the House should be attached to that idea. I hope that the Bill is allowed to go forward and that the motion will be agreed tonight.

8.50 pm

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): I have decided to contribute to the debate for two reasons. The first is that the Bill is generally unpopular, as is borne out by correspondence that I have received from the trade unions, including Amicus, that represent workers in the Mersey tunnels. However, I shall not develop that theme, as that will require that I deal with the details of the Bill.

My second reason for rising to speak is that I believe that the Bill's promoters have wasted enough of the House's time since the last general election. The House

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will recall the earlier Bill on this subject, which contained an element of privatisation. The Chairman of Ways and Means kindly made available a slot for discussion of that Bill, but my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) was not in her place at the time, and the Bill fell. The result was that the House finished early that night. Many hon. Members rejoice at having an early night, but the three-hour period allotted for the debate could have been used for some of the other important matters that the House has to address.

The earlier Bill on this subject was dropped because of its clear unpopularity. The element of privatisation was removed, and a new Bill—the subject of this motion—was introduced. A slot for debate was allocated, but the Bill's promoters did not take it up, using local elections as an excuse. However, anyone with a knowledge of Merseyside district councils would have known that those elections would not lead to a tremendous transformation, as only a third of the total number of councillors were up for re-election. There was therefore not going to be an earthquake that would make a difference to the feelings of those district councils in favour of the Bill.

A second slot for debate was allocated, and the promoters achieved a Second Reading for the Bill—narrowly, as they had only just enough supporters present to allow a vote to take place. Unfortunately, most hon. Members are unaware of the Bill's contents, as was the case with its predecessor. As a result, they have taken no part in the debate.

Misleading remarks have been made, especially in the previous debate on this Bill. A misleading letter was sent to hon. Members before the Second Reading vote, with the result that many were incorrectly led to believe that the trade unions were in favour of the Bill.

I have already mentioned the article in the Liverpool Echo on the Saturday following the debate, which analysed some of the claims that had influenced right hon. and hon. Members.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My hon. Friend made some observations about the Bill's promoters delaying its discussion in the House at or around the time of the local elections. In fact, as a consequence of those elections, the PTA changed from a hung authority to a Labour-controlled authority.

My hon. Friend also referred to the unions' mass objection to the Bill. I remind him that the Bill is supported by all the district councils on Merseyside, ASLEF, Unison, Transport 2000, Friends of the Earth and the Liverpool chamber of commerce.

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