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Mr. Chapman: You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from earlier debates on the Bill, that I am not its greatest fan. In its current form, it would remove from the people of Merseyside the decades-old promise that the tunnel debt would be paid off and tolls reduced over a period of time. It would allow the Merseyside passenger transport authority to increase tunnel tolls by the rate of inflation whether or not it had demonstrated the need to do so or introduced efficiencies. It would allow the MPTA to use tunnel profits to support other transport projects from tunnel receipts. The one aspect of the Bill to which I have
Bob Spink (Castle Point): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there must be a much clearer definition of which houses will be included in any sound insulation improvements in the Bill and which would be excluded?
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): That is something that we will wish to debate. However, there is a black cloud hanging over our proceedings. When we were going through the Lobby to vote on an earlier motion today, the Whips told Labour Members that everyone could go home except the payroll vote, which suggests that although we are going to have a debate and give the Bill serious consideration, other Members may need to be brought in later. I just hope that the payroll vote is watching my hon. Friend on television and can experience his eloquence.
Some of the amendments bring us up to date and recognise that the Bill has been around for a long time. One of them requires the tolls to be increased every five years, rather than every year, as the Bill proposes. Another one includes a proposal to increase efficiency. They result from the fact that, in my view at least, Merseytravel is a substantially unaccountable body with a propensity to spend money.
Mr. Field: I obviously do not want to guess what my hon. Friend will say when he introduces his amendments. My objections have a much narrower focus than his, but I am intrigued by his arguments about efficiency. Will he deal with that more effectively and at greater length in his introductory remarks?
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): A few seconds ago, the hon. Gentleman said that Merseytravel was a substantially unaccountable body. Is he not aware that it is the only body left over from Merseyside county council that is full of elected members?
Mr. Field: For the record, I thought that Liverpool city council, Wirral council and every other council was directly elected. We are talking about a body with indirectly elected representatives, but there is a galaxy of elected bodies in Merseyside.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the title of this group of amendments suggests, we are discussing what Mr. Deputy Speaker just referred toinflationary increases, which will not be good for Merseyside?
The formula that has been mentioned, retail prices index minus X, would bring increased efficiency to the operation of Merseytravel. The existing legislation requires the Merseyside passenger transport authority and the Secretary of State to take into account the effect of revising any tolls. The provisions enable and require the authority and the Secretary of State to take into account any revision on the basis of financial, transport or social considerations.
Those considerations are wide and would include the impact of the revision on travel patterns and on local businesses, for example. They are of considerable significance, as an increase in tolls is likely to deter users from using the tunnel concerned and cause them to use other routes. Increased tolls are likely to increase the operating costs of, and may affect the viability of, local businesses. They will certainly deter investment in Merseyside. Although the effect of the diversion to other routes such as the Runcorn bridge is of necessity limited, as it would entail a 50-mile round journey, such diversion as does occur is likely to exacerbate existing congestion and safety problems.
As I read the Bill, once the provision is removed, Merseytravel would effectively be accountable to no one. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1985 specifies that the MPTA should comprise two members from Knowsley district council, six from Liverpool, two from St. Helen's, four from Sefton and four from The Wirral. That is it. There is no mention of expertise, experience or suitability, no requirement for a mix of management, finance and accounting skills, and no direct representation for trade unions or users. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the competence of Merseyside councillors; far from it. I am sure that they are hard-working and thoroughly capable. Certainly, those whom I know are. I am not criticising specific people, merely the failings of the system that leads to their appointment to the MPTA.
In effect, posts are allocated as between the police authority, the passenger transport authority and other authorities. As I said on Second Reading, people are given posts on the principle of Buggins' turn. That was taken by some as being offensive, but what I mean is that allocation is on a random basis, rather than on the basis of skills. One might argue that the councillors can rely on those skills from the executive, but if that were the case, it would effectively be the executive that ran Merseytravel. If there is no counterbalance on the
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am listening carefully. As I have had to intervene from the Chair on a couple of occasions already, I am trying to give a little leeway to the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), but I am listening to what he is saying, and if I am not satisfied very shortly that what he is saying is relevant to the terms of his amendments, I shall intervene to say so.
Mr. Chapman: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try to stick by your guidance. I am attempting to demonstrate, among other things, that there is no need for the rises, certainly not on an annual basis, and that there is no accountability. We need to build in efficiency mechanisms and a five-year period, because there is no direct accountability.
Stephen Hesford: Is my hon. Friend aware that the rises are not necessary even in terms of internal consistency on the part of Merseytravel, as the tunnels already break even and cover their own costs?
Mr. Chapman: As I shall seek to demonstrate later, the tunnels not only break even, but make a fair margin of profit. That is another argument for restricting ourselves to a five-year review and to RPI minus X, and for greater accountability on the part of the authority. The general public have a right to demand that large sums such as those going into the authoritythere is a budget of £80 million a yearare properly accounted for. If the public are to face year-on-year increases simply because the cost of living has increased, there will be a need to demonstrate that some effiencies have been achieved in the operation of the organisation.
Stephen Hesford: I have a question that my hon. Friend may explore further later. Is he saying that there is a hidden profit in the tunnels, that it is not demonstrated as such and that some of the so-called debt is a paper exercise? Is that the point that he is making? If so, I encourage him to develop it later.
It is true that Merseytravel consults regularly, but the problem is that it does not always take account of the results of that consultation. Under the Bill, it has basically unfettered powers to pursue its own ends, more or less irrespective of the strength of its case. It is obliged to consult in respect of the local transport plan, but not necessarily to take heed of the consultation. While it may appear that there is an elected mandate, that is not so in reality. I think that there is a substantial democratic deficit.