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Mersey Tunnels Bill

As amended, further considered.

Schedule 1

Amendment of the 1980 Act: Levying, Revision and Application of Tolls

3.34 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I beg to move amendment No. 19, in schedule 1, leave out lines 35 to 37.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this we may take the following amendments: No. 16, in page 3, leave out lines 38 to 41 and insert—

No. 3, in page 3, leave out lines 38 to 41.

No. 4, in page 3, line 41, at end insert—

No. 5, in page 4, line 2, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 6, in page 4, line 8, leave out '(a) to (c)' and insert '(a) and (c)'.

No. 8, in page 4, line 11, at end insert—

No. 9, in page 4, line 15, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 10, in page 4, line 16, after 'tunnels' insert—

No. 11, in page 4, line 24, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 12, in page 4, line 33, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 13, in page 4, line 33, at end insert—

Mr. Chope: The essence of the amendment is to remove new section 91(3)(d) and (e) and therefore to remove the authorisation for the Merseyside passenger transport authority to make grants to

and to use tunnel income to make payments to

The Bill has been discussed extensively in the House, but the amendment encapsulates the main concern about it.

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To remind hon. Members of the background, in August 2001, a consultation was conducted by Merseytravel that, although it has been criticised, produced some interesting responses. One question asked whether surplus toll income should be used to cross-subsidise and improve local public transport services, thus benefiting the wider Merseyside community. Of the 312 respondents, 23 per cent. were in favour, 208—or 67 per cent.—were against, and 10 per cent. were undecided. The proposals in the amendment are therefore in line with the wishes of respondents, the majority of whom do not believe that people who use the Mersey tunnels should have to pay extra charges to fund wider travel interests beyond the tunnels. It is a simple issue of cross-subsidy.

Another question asked whether there should be a requirement to reduce tolls when the tunnel debt is paid off or whether that should be removed. The requirement is an inherent part of the tunnels' history, as it was believed that the time would come when the tunnels would be paid for, and those who used them would no longer have to pay for any costs other than running costs. In response to the question in the consultation, 71 per cent. said that the requirement should not be removed and only 17 per cent. said that it should. That is another clear expression of will by people who were consulted on that important issue. If the part of the schedule that we are debating had not been included in the Bill in the first place, its passage through the House would have been a lot smoother, as it goes to the heart of people's concerns.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): That view is widely shared not just in the House but on Merseyside as a whole. If the transport authority had not included the power to tax in the measure, it would have had its Bill many moons ago.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that confirmation, and I know that he is trying to bring sanity to the issue. When dealing with private legislation, the House works best when there is a spirit of compromise. I do not understand why, disappointingly, we have not seen any of that spirit from the Bill's promoter. One of the weapons available to hon. Members involves trying to delay Bills. There is no point trying to delay Bills just for the sake of it—the purpose is to try to provide extra time for consideration so that people can respond to arguments and concerns. It is sad that, despite the time that has been given to the Bill's promoter to reflect on the wisdom or otherwise of this part of the Bill, it has declined to meet concerns expressed not just in the House but by the wider electorate in Merseyside and the Wirral.

I am not going to say much more about the matter, because most of the points have already been made and will be no better for repetition. That is not to suggest that I and other Conservative Members do not feel strongly about it. We record our surprise that throughout the Bill's passage the Government, instead of abiding by the conventions that private legislation should be dealt with as unwhipped business and that hon. Members should be able to decide such issues on their merits, used their majority to force the measures through. That is most regrettable, because it is

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unnecessary, unhelpful and does not benefit the people of Merseyside. I hope that today we will have the chance, on a free vote, to determine the real will of the House so that it can take a view on the merits or otherwise of using toll income to cross-subsidise other transport projects.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I want to speak to amendments Nos. 4, 6, 8 and 19, which are tabled in my name and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), and which deal with the various purposes for which the tolls may be applied. I contend that the Bill provides Merseytravel with too great a power when it comes to spending tunnel tolls and that the powers that it already possesses regarding the use of tunnel tolls are poorly applied.

I shall deal first with amendment No. 19. The Bill provides Merseytravel with the power to use tunnel toll receipts for projects other than the tunnels—the principle of cross-subsidy to which the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred. In one sense it already does that in relation to the Mersey ferries. The amendment, although essentially probing, would strike from the Bill the provision that allows revenue from tunnel tolls to be redirected to fund the ferries. That is not intended to harm or question the ferry service, which is famous across the globe as a loved and lauded part of Liverpool's image and heritage. I am sure that the ferries will be a key component of the capital of culture status that Liverpool has acquired.

Mr. Frank Field: My hon. Friend may recall that a previous Member for Wirral, West, who is now in the other place—Lord Hunt—was involved in the Bill through which the forerunner of Merseytravel tried to abolish the subsidy of the ferries. It had to give up in the end, having failed to win the measure. When the Bill leaves this House today, it goes to the other Chamber, where presumably Lord Hunt will be waiting for it.

Mr. Chapman: I was not aware of that, but I can see why he failed, given the emotional attachment of the people of Merseyside to the ferries.

Everything has its place and its purpose, and Merseytravel's is to cater for the public transport needs of the people of Merseyside. It is not entirely clear where the ferries fit into that. Most people would acknowledge that they are not the most efficient form of commuter transport—indeed, they are primarily geared towards round trips and tourism. A quick glance at the website confirms that they are first and foremost a tourist vehicle—and, of course, a successful one. The North West tourist board tells us that they are the second most visited paid admission attraction in the north-west, and they were recently accredited by the north-west visitor attraction quality service.

3.45 pm

Merseytravel's function, however, is to

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The Mersey tunnels, which are primarily for private vehicles and subsidise a commuter service, are an anomaly. Yet the anomaly pales when one considers that Merseytravel operates a tourist attraction with public funds as part of its stated aim of co-ordinating a public transport network. That is at least questionable.

Only one third of ferry passengers are commuters and instead of making a profit, the ferries cost £2.1 million a year, of which £700,000 is made up from tunnel tolls. The nature of investment in the ferries shows that they are a tourist attraction. For example, there has been investment in Seacombe to incorporate an international astronomy and space centre. There is also to be an expanded leisure and corporate entertainment programme in a new terminal building at Pier Head.

The logic of Merseyside passenger transport authority's avowed motives for the Bill is that tunnel users should pay more money now to prevent people in the outlying areas of Merseyside from having to support the tunnels, which, by and large, they do not use. I reject that logic because the Mersey tunnels are the principal commercial artery of our conurbation and they therefore have an impact on the whole of Merseyside and beyond, in Lancashire, Cheshire and north Wales. The tunnels do not simply serve the people who live immediately at either end. Even if the logic held true and tunnel users should pay more money now to prevent people in outlying areas from having to support the tunnels, why does the same not apply to tunnel users being called upon to subsidise the ferries?

The ferries are a long-standing and endearing symbol of Liverpool. Would not it be more fitting if they were funded from the precept? At least in that way, everybody would pay equally rather than some people being unfairly taxed for the purpose. However, Merseytravel

In the case of the ferries, neither stipulation is fulfilled. Imposing on people who use the tunnels to subsidise the travel of the ever-diminishing number of commuters who use the ferries is hardly in the interests of the wider "travelling public". An operation that loses £2.1 million a year cannot be classed as "value for money".

The charter that obliges Merseytravel to operate the ferries offers no get-out. It might say that it has no choice but to bear the loss with which the ferries are saddled. However, there should be other ways and the amendment is designed simply to pose some questions. For example, could the Mersey Partnership play a wider role? Could the North-West regional assembly or the regional development agency have such a role? Is there a role for the private sector?

Amendment No. 4 proposes greater proportionality of the cost and benefit burden for tunnel users. According to Merseytravel, 65 per cent. of tunnel users come from the Wirral area, 16 per cent. from Liverpool, 10 per cent. from Cheshire and north Wales, 7 per cent. from Sefton and 2 per cent. from Knowsley. Those who support the Bill have long argued that people who by and large do not use the tunnels should not have to fund them through their council tax, as happened in the late 1980s. I believe that that is a false contention. If the

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argument were accepted, I hope that the Bill's proponents would see fit to ensure that those who pay the most in tunnel tolls reap the funding benefits from the receipts. Amendment No. 4 would therefore create such a quid pro quo.

Merseytravel's spokesman at the Opposed Private Bill Committee suggested that the prospective Mersey tram scheme was an example of a project towards which MPTA might wish to direct toll revenues. It is a top priority for the authority. However, regardless of the tram project's merits, I do not agree with taxing and exploiting tunnel users to build that or any other project from which many of them will not directly benefit. They are ordinary people who work in hospitals and factories. They go to visit friends and relatives, and devote their energies and investment to Liverpool and the wider Merseyside sub-region, yet they are being taxed to pay for a facility from which they will not benefit.

The Mersey has no viable road crossings within transferable distance, so to speak, and there is not adequate public transport to absorb the massive numbers of people who could be forced to abandon using their private vehicles to get to work if the tunnel tolls increase. Merseytravel has not shown how it would invest in providing viable alternatives for those displaced tunnel-users, the majority of whom, coincidentally, hail from the Wirral peninsula.

There must surely be other sources of funding available. Manchester managed to get its tram system without taxing a particular portion of its populace; nor does it have the benefits, in funding terms, of being an objective 1 area. The Wirral gains little or nothing from the allocation of excess tunnel tolls, yet it will bear the bulk of the burden of cost. I can see no justification for that imposition, but I stress that it is the principles of the Bill, and the cost to the whole of Merseyside, that worries me most. This issue does not affect one side of the Mersey more than the other; it is a unitary problem.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 8 propose to restrict spending on other projects until such time as the debt has been paid off. If tunnel tolls are regularly to be increased, at least let it be done in the name of financial propriety. The tolls have been a millstone round the neck of the people of Merseyside since the first half of the last century, and the long and short of it is that the tunnels cost £44 million to build, have collected £500 million from users, yet have debts of £100 million. If it were not for the way in which the tunnels have been managed, and for the money that has been siphoned off, they would now be debt-free and part of the normal road system.

If Merseytravel's current private Bill becomes law, it will be the 13th private Act to deal with the tunnels. Those Acts have served various purposes, including authorising the construction of the tunnels. Many of them also contain sections that have had the effect of postponing the time at which the tolls could be reduced. Under this Bill, that perpetually distant promise would be erased altogether.

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