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Mr. Field: One of the attractive aspects of the Liberals' standing for election in Liverpool has been that over a period of years they proposed to increase council tax by less than the rate of inflation, and they now propose no increase at all. If such a stimulus to the good management of its affairs is good for the city of Liverpool, why is it not good for the PTA?

Dr. Pugh: It may or may not be good, depending on the circumstances. I have to say that amendment No. 18 is redundant, because under the current legislation, if the MPTA judges freezing the toll to be in the interests of the economic welfare of Liverpool, there is nothing to prevent it from doing so. Trying to inhibit it from reviewing the toll annually or raising it in line with inflation is a different matter.

Stephen Hesford: Can the hon. Gentleman give me a single instance of a freezing of the toll during its life of 70-odd years?

Dr. Pugh: One would also be hard pushed to find an occasion on which council tax was frozen under past Labour administrations in Liverpool, but it can happen and it might happen.

6.45 pm

Whether or not the legislation is passed tonight, an indirectly elected body will still levy a tax. Voting the legislation out will not change that. However, that body can be extensively lobbied, and has some good professional advice and a degree of democratic accountability—a lot more than exists, for example, in the police authority, of which I was a member. Hon. Members need reminding that any plans formulated by the MPTA for funding need to go through the local transport plan process. The community needs to be consulted widely on them: bodies in the community and local councils need to be consulted.

Mr. Wareing: The hon. Gentleman said that the tolls have always been there. They have; but the reason they were introduced was to pay off the debt of the Mersey tunnels. That has always been the priority. The hope was that, when that eventually happened, the tolls could go altogether. Now the tolls will be used not just to pay off the debt but to provide revenue for services not linked to the tunnels themselves. That is people's fear: the tolls will not be swept away.

Dr. Pugh: I am not aware that people in Merseyside are counting on the tolls not being levied for their Christmas money. The hon. Gentleman makes the fair point that the original purpose of the tolls was to pay the capital cost and that the purpose is being changed. That is conceded. We support the change in purpose because it is a good one. It feeds into an integrated transport system, which I hope all hon. Members support; but however one views the MPTA and local authority bodies on Merseyside, they have no fundamental interest in wreaking economic havoc in the area. They

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have to take on board the interests of the citizens, who elect them in one way or another, and of local business, which they are compelled to consult regularly. The realisation that the MPTA has only a modest objective has led to a reduction in argument and to the general acceptance by most people that the legislation is reasonable.

The amendment appears to look at a cumbersome and indefensible old system, to look at a simple, better, more rational system that could be defended outside Merseyside, and to suggest instead a series of cumbersome new systems built around the five-year system, which I do not think anyone apart from the supporters of the amendment understand.

Stephen Hesford: If it is streamlining the system, why does the Bill keep, as well as any new system, the old system?

Dr. Pugh: I think that a clear preference is expressed in the Bill for the new system. The hon. Gentleman would not argue against it if he thought that the old system was going to persist. Amendments tabled by Labour Members are designed not to make it more workable but to make it unworkable and confusing and to cause delay. If we could assure you that the MPTA was the most efficient body on God's earth and that it was thoroughly accountable and ready to put its head on the block every year for election, you would not withdraw your opposition—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.

Dr. Pugh: I apologise.

Mr. Field: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has so misunderstood my contribution and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman). We are prepared to see that delegation of authority. We are not trying to argue for the status quo and the bizarre procedure where, every time the body wanted to change the toll by 10p, we had to debate it in the House of Commons. We want it to behave responsibly in exercising that power.

Dr. Pugh: The right hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I have cast aspersions on his intentions or those of other Labour Members. I am sure that their intentions are thoroughly honourable, that they would like to have a rational discussion of the Bill, and that they have done all they can to ensure that that takes place—but at no point do they deal with the fundamental concern. The Mersey tunnels have lost £10 million on average; they are not losing that at the moment but they have in the past. Unless the legislation is changed, that will still be a problem for most Merseyside Members.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I shall try to explain briefly the particular circumstances affecting my constituents that cause me to support the amendments, which seek to create delays, RPI minus X and then stability. My constituents have a special set of circumstances, and all those present accept that they

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constitute a large proportion of the users of the tunnels. Of course, my authority is not one of the shareholding authorities of the Merseyside passenger transport authority. It is argued that the fact that it is not a shareholder creates the logic of no representation without taxation, because it has not been responsible for the debts. However, the reverse is equally true: proportionately, it puts a huge amount of money into the authority, so it is entitled to a say.

In my view, legislation is required to bring about delay, RPI minus X and stability, thereby creating the five-year period. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport will acknowledge that section 1(1)(h) of the Local Government Act 1999, which brought about the concept of best value, refers to

The Act describes it as a "best value authority" that

The Act later states:

During previous debates on the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have heard the argument from Members—including from some of my hon. Friends—that my constituents have no locus in this matter, but the law of the land says that they do. The 1999 Act also places a duty on this same authority to consult

If you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in our capacity as constituency Members, are not representatives, or if our local authorities are not representatives, I honestly do not know to whom or to what the Act is referring. The position is clear cut: there is a statutory duty on the authority to consult either me—as my constituents' representative—or my local authority, or to create a mechanism. That is precisely why it is legitimate for me to argue in favour of the amendments that would create this delay, or for the specific utility formula described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), which I find slightly more palatable.

Following the privatisation of some of the utilities, we have witnessed the creation of the RPI minus X formula and heard arguments in favour of building a stability process into the mechanism. I shall not repeat them, because I appreciate that colleagues are getting itchy feet. However, until I hear that a mechanism has been devised by the MPTA, in consultation with representatives of my constituency, it is perfectly in order for me to argue in favour of these sorts of delays.

One of the documents associated with the Bill—the promoter's statement—includes an interesting graph, showing future traffic growth. Unfortunately, we do not have the facility to display graphics in the Chamber—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) evidently believes that we should not have it, but never mind. The graph is preceded by a couple of paragraphs dealing with Merseytravel's logic for creating the RPI formula. The

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graph shows traffic flow forecasts both with and without the application of the formula. Precisely the sort of thing that should be discussed in consultation with the local authorities in my area and with me is the logic behind the changing graph—effectively a missing bit. There may be a perfectly sound logic to it. What follows in paragraph 13 on page 3 of the document is, to all intents and purposes, a congestion charge.

I am not opposed to congestion charging: far from it. I declare a minor beneficial interest, in that I am exempt from the congestion charge in London because my car runs on liquid petroleum gas. If the graph is intended to demonstrate the depressant effect of the clause in the context of congestion charging, it is an argument that should be further pursued. It should also be examined in the context of whether other congestion charging, in the city centre or in Birkenhead, could also apply in parallel. What effect would that have on motorists? We need to ascertain whether RPI in the clause or RPI minus X in the amendment is the legitimate way of proceeding, and I want such a discussion to take place.

We could examine the history of the debts and find all sorts of reasons why they should not have accrued, but I personally do not blame the current management, because the reasons are much more deep seated. However, in view of the consequences of creating a fixed formula by which the authority should proceed, I am taking the opportunity to plead with the passenger transport authority and the Minister to join up and ensure that the principle set out in clause 1 of the best value legislation to which I referred applies equally to the Bill when it becomes an Act. I stress "when it becomes an Act", because it is not my intention to filibuster the Bill and be called to order.

The three core principles set out in the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South cannot be understood in the absence of the proper explanation that I have just set out about the future traffic growth scenario. That scenario, shown up to 2027 in the graph, shows an increase of about 4 million vehicles on one assessment and 2 million on another, which amounts to a huge revenue-raising exercise in itself.

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