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23 Oct 2002 : Column 361—continued

Mr. Chope: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that he is supporting the point that I have made, and I am grateful to him for that.

In order to justify a carry-over, there must be a set of special circumstances. Obviously, we as hon. Members take into account a number of different circumstances: for example, how far a Bill has already progressed. If we were having a carry-over motion debate when the Bill had almost finished its Committee stage or was well into Report stage, the arguments in favour of carrying it over

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would be much stronger. The Bill has merely had a Second Reading; the rest of the procedure has yet to be completed. That is the first relevant consideration.

The second issue that is relevant is the extent to which the Bill is controversial. I do not think that anyone can dispute that it is an extremely controversial Bill. Labour and Conservative Members oppose it; I am not sure whether any Liberal Democrats do so. It is opposed by a number of trade unions and councillors. It is highly contentious in Merseyside.

The third issue that is relevant to whether we support the carry-over motion was raised by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—the extent to which the promoters have taken on board the criticisms made on Second Reading. I was disturbed when he said that he had not been able to get any clear indication from the promoters of whether they were going to meet in whole or in part the concerns that were expressed by hon. Members on Second Reading.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who is not in his place at the moment, said that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead was arguing for Trotskyite permanent revolution. I do not think that he was asking for that. He was saying that, in the context of the pressure on parliamentary time, it is relevant for hon. Members to take into account the extent to which the promoters are prepared to compromise and to remove from the Bill those powers that are causing the most controversy.

Dr. Pugh: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the appropriate time for further consultation and a response is in Committee?

Mr. Chope: If we were not at the end of the Session, considering whether the Bill in its present form should be carried through to Committee, the hon. Gentleman's point would be valid, but if the carry-over motion is not passed this evening the promoters will have to go back to the drawing board, and I suspect that they will come back with a Bill that is much more in line with the consensus that can be achieved on it, particularly on the issue of whether surplus toll income should be used to cross-subsidise other activities.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House for some considerable time and must have sat through many occasions rather similar to this, on which private Bills sought to have the right to carry on. Will not he bear it in mind that this is not a private company with a very large income? In effect, it is the taxpayers of Merseyside, who have been asked whether they wish to recommence or to continue with an existing Bill that has a direct effect both on ratepayers and those who are responsible for providing a proper transport system.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Lady makes an important point. My experience goes back to a Bill that was promoted by Southampton city council, called the Southampton Rapid Transit Bill. She may remember it. I advised the council strongly that if it proceeded with a Bill that did not enjoy the support of local Members of Parliament, let alone the people of Southampton, it had a very poor prospect of success. An enormous sum was spent, but that Bill was lost.

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I suggest that, if the carry-over motion is not passed, the promoters will introduce a much less controversial Bill and there will be much less scope for amendment on Report. As a result, that Bill could well cost the promoters much less money than the present Bill is likely to cost them. The prospect is that the Bill will go through an extremely prolonged process if it proceeds in the teeth of so much opposition. That will cost the people of Merseyside an enormous amount of money. I suspect that it might be better for the promoters to cut their losses now, return to the drawing board and introduce a simpler and shorter Bill.

Dr. Pugh: Is the hon. Gentleman making the counter-intuitive proposal that two Bills are, in fact, cheaper than one?

Mr. Chope: I am suggesting that a Bill that passes swiftly is much less expansive than one that takes an enormous amount of time. It must be obvious to the hon. Gentleman that, if the Bill proceeds, it will take an enormous amount of time and cost the promoter an enormous sum because it is so controversial. The most controversial parts of the Bill should be removed and the essential part of it should be allowed to proceed.

In 1995, the then Government issued a consultation paper on estuarial crossings, which included quite strong criticism of the bureaucratic arrangements that relate to setting Mersey tunnel tolls. We have not yet had a Government response to that consultation. I do not know whether the Minister will respond to that paper, which was issued seven years ago, but I hope that the Government will declare their policy because, sadly, we were unable to gain the benefit of the Government's view of the Bill as a result of the way in which the Second Reading debate proceeded.

Mr. Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The motion states that

Those of us who had legitimate interests were not even able to express them because of the procedure adopted on Second Reading.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. My point is that a simpler Bill should concentrate on some of the key issues.

One of the other relevant things that we should consider tonight is the extent to which what the promoters seek should be achieved through other means. Paragraph 11 of the promoter's original statement refers to the Transport Act 2000. Under that Act, it is perfectly within the powers of the Merseyside passenger transport authority to set up a charging regime to fund some of the public activities that it wants to fund under its transport plan, but if it did that, it would probably be obliged to charge more than 3 per cent. of Merseyside's population. I understand that that percentage of Merseyside's population uses the tunnels. The Bill proposes charging those travellers, whereas the

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authority already the power, under the Act, to charge a wider range of car users, if it so wishes, to achieve the public transport benefits that it seeks.

Mr. Ben Chapman: The hon. Gentleman mentions the fact that only 3 per cent. of the people of Merseyside use the tunnels. Irrespective of whether that figure is correct, does he accept that the proportion of people—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Once again, hon. Members are going wide of the motion and are going more into the Bill's merits.

Mr. Chope: There are strong views about the Bill's merits. All I seek to argue is that if the promoter could achieve part of what the Bill seeks to achieve by putting in hand local arrangements using the powers given to it under the Transport Act, the justification for that part of the Bill would be removed, as would the argument in favour of carrying it forward to the next Session.

My final point relates to my previous exchange with the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. I asked why Mick Rix, the General Secretary of ASLEF, had sent us a letter saying that, if implemented, the proposals would generate an additional #2.5 million in revenue for local public transport per year? Surely the argument that has been put forward is that the debt should be reduced first. The argument of the Bill's promoters and their supporters about the small proportion of people who use the tunnels being burdened with paying for the wider public transport agenda of the passenger transport authority is a relevant issue that we should consider this evening.

I am disappointed that the Bill's promoters have not indicated any willingness to compromise or listen to reason. It is not too late for the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) to indicate that they will make amendments in the light of the concerns expressed, but, up to now, they have seemed keen to steamroller this highly controversial Bill through the House. Members have the opportunity tonight to pass judgment on that.

9.22 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I want to take this opportunity to make clear the position of the Government.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Claire Curtis-Thomas) on the able way in which she proposed the motion for the Bill to be carried over. I also commend all the other hon. Members who have taken part in this interesting debate. As hon. Members will know, it is traditional that the Government take a neutral stance on private Bills that do not contradict stated Government policy, and that is the approach that the Government intend to take with this Bill. That being said, the Government are not opposed to the Bill being carried over.

The Bill includes a number of provisions. First, it would permit Merseytravel to increase tolls at the tunnels based on a retail prices index formula without having to seek permission from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and to use some of the proceeds from toll revenues for wider transport objectives in Merseyside. That latter point is, of course, broadly in line with the broader options currently

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available to local authorities through congestion charging. The Government are not, therefore, opposed in principle to Merseytravel's proposals to use some of the additional toll revenue for local transport purposes.

The Bill would permit increases to toll charges in line with the RPI. The Government are not opposed to this principle, especially as the tunnels are owned and operated by a local authority, and, as such, subject to democratic accountability. In addition, the Bill would give Merseytravel the ability to undertake and finance noise insulation work to properties on the Kingsway tunnel approach roads on the Wirral. The Government welcome the introduction of those new powers, as we understand that they respond to long-standing concerns voiced by local residents.

However, the Government are also conscious of the strength of local feeling about allowing Merseytravel to increase tolls by the RPI without any check. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) has previously expressed concerns about levels of efficiency at the tunnel and about the pressures that higher tolls would place on his constituents. In addition, the Government are concerned that some of the Bill's proposals for using revenue derived from heavy goods vehicles for purposes not related to the costs of the tunnels' construction, maintenance and operation could be seen to be in breach of EU directive 99/62.

The Government's views on this Bill have been brought to the attention of the Committee in a report, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. I am confident that the Committee will fully examine all the objections and concerns raised by the various petitioners.

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