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Bob Spink rose—

Mr. Miller: I am not giving way. How can that justify RPI standing on its own? I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in an earlier intervention—that it does not have to be RPI and could be something else. However, if it is to be something else, I insist that the Bill, together with best value legislation, requires the MPTA to consult people in my constituency in a proper manner.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I congratulate my colleagues who have spoken so well today on the amendments and I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). Amendments Nos. 27 and 28, which are supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), try to change the time from which indexation would run. The tunnels' tolls were last increased, as hon. Members will know, on 1 December

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1999, and it is only right and proper—and appropriate—that the indexation of tolls should apply from 1999.

The amendments also ignore the management of the tunnels' future traffic growth, which would be far easier to review on a yearly basis, rather than on a quinquennial basis.

Mr. Ben Chapman: Of course I respect the sincerity of my hon. Friend's views, but I wonder why she claims that indexation should go back to 1999, when there is no evidence that the passenger transport authority is short of money. Why should the tunnel users be penalised when there is no demonstrable need for them to be so?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: As I said, the last tunnel toll increase was in 1999. There has been no increase subsequently, which is why it is appropriate for the review to start in 1999.

7 pm

Stephen Hesford: My hon. Friend will not wish to mislead the House inadvertently on that point. She will know, as I mentioned earlier, that there is an order in the offing to change the toll from £1.20 cash for a car to £1.30. That is happening as we speak, so the situation is not exactly as my hon. Friend suggests.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My hon. Friend is correct. If the House sees fit to give the Bill good passage, that increase might not be necessary. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the amendments at hand, and we are not here to debate that particular point.

Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 run counter to the annual review of tolls that forms part and parcel of a regulatory, inflation-related review of toll levels and, if necessary, increases. They are therefore not acceptable. In the permanently low-inflation society that we have enjoyed of late, a review of tolls every five years might be appropriate, but we may not be in a low-inflation society in five or 10 years' time. Management must seek to manage for all conditions. With a review every five years, the revenues would quickly fall behind costs, the traffic restraint effect of the tolls would be reduced, and users would face a large toll increase every five years, which would be difficult to plan for. An increase every five years is far more difficult to accommodate than an annual increase.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 24 are contrary to the Bill's proposed use of RPI, which is the right index to use, especially given the arrangements that are in place at the Dartford and Severn crossings—as was pointed out earlier.

Mr. Miller: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill does not take precedence over existing Acts of Parliament, and that it must be read in parallel with other legislation, including the best value legislation?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Yes. I cannot think of any immediate reasons why it should not be treated in that way. However, I am minded that God took only seven days to create the world, whereas we have spent about 1,000 days on the Bill. For most us, it is complex in the extreme.

Mr. Frank Field: The Bill is complex and it has taken a long time to consider, but does my hon. Friend agree

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that the normal give and take in debates such as this would have allowed her to secure her Bill this evening? The problem is that the authority that she represents is not prepared to listen to or concede any of our arguments.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My right hon. Friend is being uncharacteristically ungenerous. The promoters of the Bill have tried to do everything in their power to meet and reassure those hon. Members who object to the Bill.

After Second Reading, the Bill went through to a Committee unopposed. That arrangement may not suit some hon. Members, but it is the only procedure available for consideration of a Bill such as this. There was also an opportunity for petitioners to advance their arguments and concerns, but they were withdrawn.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I gently bring the hon. Lady back on track? She should talk about the amendments.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 24 run counter to the annual review of tolls that form part of the principle of regular inflation-related reviews of toll levels and, if necessary, increases. Therefore, I suggest that the amendments are not acceptable.

Finally, amendment No. 18 is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and he will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that he proposes to insert a power to freeze toll prices when the tunnels' revenue needs can be met without a rise. The amendment also provides that the toll would be suspended where the tunnels' revenue needs can be met without toll revenue. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say whether that is an accurate understanding of the amendment.

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend is right in her reading of that amendment, and of the others in my name.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I read amendment No. 18 with some interest, and I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend's remarks. He attempted to argue that tolls should be increased in ways other than those set out in the Bill. However, the second part of the amendment anticipates a situation that has never arisen, and which is never likely to arise. That situation is one where the tolls can be suspended if the tunnels' revenue needs can be met without toll revenue. I cannot envisage any circumstances in which that wonderful option might arise.

Mr. Field: Again, I must be careful, as this matter relates to the other amendment in my name. However, it is possible that a stage could be reached when debts have been repaid and reserves accumulated. In those circumstances, the toll would not require a further increase until some time in the future, when additional revenue—over and above the amount previously achieved through tolls—would be needed.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. However, issues of maintenance and health and

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safety in the tunnels have an impact on the bottom line of the Merseyside passenger transport authority's annual accounts. In light of that, my right hon. Friend and I will be a long time dead before we reach the circumstances that he describes in the amendment.

Stephen Hesford: If my hon. Friend is right and the situation that amendment No. 18 is designed to meet has not arisen in living memory and is unlikely to arise, what is the objection to the provision? The amendment is not mandatory but permissive. What is the harm in including it, in case—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) argued so persuasively—such a situation were to arise?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, but we have to deal with reality. The authority—the promoters of the Bill—tried to envisage all possible scenarios, but that scenario is highly unlikely so it has not been considered.

I want to deal more fully with the amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead. It ignores one of the principles of the Bill, which is wrapped up in the RPI-related provisions—that the tunnels' tolls must be used as a means to manage further traffic levels. The first part of the amendment is unnecessary, given that the powers under section 92C—

Mr. Chapman: Will my hon. Friend elucidate for the House how increasing the Mersey tunnels' tolls will control the flow of traffic?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Given my hon. Friend's expert knowledge and the expert advice that he has received, it would ill become me to offer him an answer. I think that the answer lies in his hands.

Mr. Field: It seems that we are extending the Bill from a measure that would give authority to raise tolls to one that will control congestion. That is not in the Bill.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution but I must press on, as we have much more to do.

In conclusion, I have given substantial thought to the amendments and I do not agree with them. The Bill's provisions are acceptable and have been adequately debated.

Mr. Kilfoyle rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 172, Noes 70.

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