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23 Oct 2002 : Column 365—continued

Mr. Miller: So that there is no ambiguity, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that this is not whipped business as far as the Government are concerned?

Mr. Spellar: As I made clear earlier, the Government take a neutral stance. There will be a free vote on the Government side.I do not wish to take further time, as I understand that other Members wish to take part in this time-limited debate.

9.25 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister's statement in parts. I certainly welcome the point about the EU directive and the caution about retail prices index increases without check. However, I take slight exception to his point that the passenger transport authority is a local authority with democratic accountability. It is not a local authority and does not have direct democratic accountability. Its members are nominated by councils, but they are not elected and have no democratic accountability.

Mrs. Dunwoody: My hon. Friend seems to be enunciating an interesting theory for passenger transport executives. The money involved is much more closely monitored—because they are run by local authorities and must produce accurate returns—than it could possibly be if they were private companies.

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The fact that local authorities nominate to the bodies that control the money does not make the system anti-democratic. The executives make more disclosure of more information simply because they are local authorities. He is getting into a slight difficulty by suggesting that PTEs are not responsible for what they do with public money.

Mr. Chapman: As my hon. Friend knows, no one could hold her in higher regard than I do, but I absolutely disagree with her on those points. If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were to permit me, I would elaborate why. However, I am not sure whether you would allow me to do that.

I shall spend as little time as possible in considering the Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), I believe that we have spent enough time on it already. However, if you were to indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would consider the need for a carry-over motion, and my point applies irrespective of whether it is a private or public Bill. I also want to examine some of the paragraphs in the motion in detail.

If I believe what I read in the Liverpool newspapers, we have been overtaken by events. The press tells me that, notwithstanding the provisions in the Bill for automatic annual increases, Merseytravel now intends to apply to raise tunnel tolls anyhow through the existing public inquiry mechanism. That suggests two things to me, and partly provides a response to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). First, notwithstanding the views of the vast majority of people on Merseyside, the body—which, in my view, has no direct accountability—intends to fly in the face of public opinion whether or not the Bill is carried over. Secondly, the Merseyside passenger transport authority recognises that it already has a mechanism for raising tunnel tolls provided that it can justify them. The Bill asks for something other than that.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that that mechanism exists at the expense of council tax payers on Merseyside. The tunnel tolls have to go into deficit to trigger a public inquiry and that inquiry takes a minimum of 22 months to report. In the interim, a deficit is built up and my hon. Friend's constituents and mine have to pay for it. The Bill seeks to remove that charge on our constituents.

Mr. Chapman: My point is that Merseytravel should justify any need for increases and not rely merely on the fact that the cost of living has gone up.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks to the motion rather than to the merits of the charges involved?

Mr. Chapman: I was trying to do that. If the Mersey passenger transport authority has a mechanism that it accepts and can use, why do we need a carry-over motion? The House has better things to do than consider the Bill further. We have much legislation to discuss which covers many issues and places demands on our meagre time. The carry-over is not a high priority for my constituents, who do not want it. They would be

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happier for the House to discuss a host of other issues—the ban on hunting with hounds, the control of leylandii hedges and military action against Iraq, for instance. They would prefer almost anything to be discussed other than the Bill's carry-over. We have limited time at our disposal and much to discuss. We should not be wasting our time on the motion. Sufficient time has been spent on the Bill already.

The motion is simple and clear cut: to carry over or not to carry over. I do not want the Bill to be carried over into the next Session. Instead, I want it to be rejected and to fail because it is foolhardy. I have assiduously studied examples of other carry-over motions. I am not sure that I have the hang of it, but I shall try to stick within the limited scope of the debate. However, I hope you understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, that although we are considering the form of the carry-over, it is difficult not to stray into its substance.

I do not understand why the Bill should be carried over. Although I think that it should not be a private Bill, I contend, as others have, that Merseytravel has not made good use of the time available to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby highlighted various ways in which time was misspent. No one has explained, however, that Merseytravel wasted time by trying to deny a voice to the unions representing tunnel workers and users of the tunnel, and to the employees and business people of Merseyside, all of whom are against the Bill. Rather than listening to their concerns, the passenger transport authority preferred to gag their representatives and continue on its chosen course by proceeding via the Court of Referees. It did not succeed because it had no case, but that did not stop it wasting time and a great deal of money. It is normal for a Bill's promoters to engage parliamentary agents. They are required to do so and there is no problem with that, but the Bill has had more agents employed in its promotion and passage than the people of Merseyside would expect.

I want to examine the motion in detail. Paragraph 6 provides that no further fees will be charged. That must be wrong. The Private Bill Office is funded by the fees paid by the promoters of Bills. Assuming that the Bill passes all its stages, the cost will be #16,000. I do not think that the Private Bill Office can survive for long on that. It is a good deal by anyone's standards.

Let us consider the real cost. How much does it cost for us to be here tonight? I am sure you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in 2000–01, the operating costs of the Office of the Speaker were #635,000. The department of the Clerk of the House and the Speaker's Counsel cost #20 million; the department of the Serjeant at Arms cost #21.5 million; and the Library cost #7 million.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is my hon. Friend suggesting that we should not have the right to debate private Bills?

Mr. Chapman: No, I am just dealing with the idea that no extra fees should be charged, as contained in paragraph 6. Given the costs involved, it is unreasonable that no extra fees should be charged.

If one broke down the costs that I have set out, one would find that the process is costing a great deal. It is unreasonable that no extra fees are to be charged.

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It is not that Merseytravel does not have the money, and it is not that it shows an unwillingness to spend. Indeed, had Merseytravel been a model of financial rectitude, we might have had to be cautious in seeking more money. You are giving me a particular look, Madam Deputy Speaker, which is telling me not to proceed with that point. Merseytravel is, as it claims in defence of some of its expenditure, a #250 million organisation. It spends profligately and we need to consider the sixth paragraph of the motion.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Given that my hon. Friend's remarks are straying on to the merits of the Bill, will he identify which costs he would like to cut—perhaps those associated with health and safety or with the police who operate in the tunnel?

Mr. Chapman: I was thinking more of the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have been spent on the Bill. I was thinking of the large sums spent on the politically correct but foolish measure of changing all the signs on the tollbooths from Xmanned" to Xstaffed". I was thinking of the fact that Merseytravel is reported to have sent 20 people to a Court of Referees process in which none of them could have taken any part. Merseytravel has an inbuilt propensity to spend because it has a lot of money and because of the structure of the passenger transport authority.

Mr. George Howarth: I apologise for not being present at the beginning of what I am sure has been a fascinating odyssey through the whys and wherefores of the Bill. Now I, too, am getting a look from you, Madam Deputy Speaker. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend said that he thought that the number of police officers in the tunnel could be cut. Does he still—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Clearly the look was not sufficient.

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