While we are talking about pain, most colleagues will receive a letter from me tomorrow stating that we intend to start work on the road surface of the new bridge. Work will start—I can give the exact date—on 9 June and run until 14 July on the eastbound carriageways,

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and between 6 September and 11 October on the westbound carriageways. That is due mostly to the fact that the inside lane in both directions is severely worn and will have to be completely replaced.

We looked carefully at how to manage the obvious disruption that will take place. Options included a contraflow system and shutting the bridge while work is carried out. The option that we went for will extend the work—overall it will take about five weeks to put a new waterproof membrane on the bridge and surface the road—but it will leave at least one lane open each way. We made the decision not to shut the bridge or use a contraflow system that would have caused more expense and extensive delays. There will be delays, for which I apologise, but investment must be put into the bridge because of its age, and that will be done. It is a reflection of the amount of traffic that the bridge carries.

The only party political point that I will make during my speech will be to touch on the recent elections and my Welsh colleagues’ proposals to fund the costs of the toll increases through the Welsh Assembly. It is entirely up to the Welsh Assembly whether or not it wishes to use its funds in that way. If the Conservative party had been elected, it would have been its decision how to run the economy in Wales, just as today’s Administration make those decisions. If the Conservative party—or any other party as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) said earlier—decided that it wanted to fund the cost of the difference between the toll today and the proposed increases under the contract agreement, that could be negotiated with the United Kingdom Government. My door is open to the Welsh Assembly, under the respect agenda to say the least. I wrote to my counterpart in that Assembly—I must now write again because the holder of that position has changed—and offered my assistance.

I am speaking on behalf of the Department rather than the Treasury, but if that money were used to offset the difference, the contract would not be affected and would remain in place. The only difference would be that money would be recouped from the Welsh Assembly rather than directly from the tolls. It is a complicated legal issue. It sounds simple, but it is quite complicated. Did I know about this? I have to be perfectly honest: the answer is no. However, that does not mean that we would not get into negotiations or provide every assistance for that to happen.

All the discussions that we have had to date, including in the Select Committee, have been based on whether there could be a reduction in the toll at night or a reduction in the toll for local residents. I must admit that the position is much more complicated in this case than it is in the case of the two other major bridges that are often cited. Could there be no increases whatever? Everything comes down to the fact that a contract is in place that says that the company is allowed, after costs, to recoup X amount of money before the bridge is handed back into the full ownership of the Secretary of State.

If I were the company, would I want to negotiate any changes to the present contract? Probably not. So what we are talking about is an increase in the time that the tolls would be there. At every stage when I talk about the tolls and the bridge and we have these discussions, it is a question of a balance between the length of time that the bridge is out of our ownership, based on the

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contractual agreement that we have, and when it could come back into our ownership and decisions could be made.

It would be wrong of me to say that we are not thinking about what will happen at the end of the concession agreement. Of course, we are thinking about what will happen. However, as I have said, this is a national piece of infrastructure and a cross-departmental matter. It is a national asset. I am sure that the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh people will understand that we will have to consider what happens to the bridge in the context of the investment going into our networks. However, no decision has been made.

Geraint Davies: Naturally, the debate focused on whether we could reduce the toll to £1 up to 2017, but I infer from what the Minister has said that if the money was forthcoming—for example, from the Welsh Assembly or from anywhere else—to pay down the debt now, the bridge would move into public ownership earlier than 2017, in which case we could have lower tolls now, although perhaps not a toll of £1. Can the Westminster Government now pay down that debt from their own money, with a strategy of recovering the money that they pay it down with by reducing the toll now to somewhere between where it is now and £1, so that we could have a lower toll sooner, albeit not as low as £1?

Mike Penning: This is where I wish that I had not joined the Army at 16 but had gone to university and become a corporate lawyer. We can discuss the legalities in quite simple terms. Nothing at all can be done without the agreement of the concessionaire, so should the company decide that it does not want to do what has been suggested, that will be a fact. We are trapped in a contract; everyone knows that and the Committee examined the matter in detail.

I can see the logic of where the hon. Member for Swansea West is coming from, but the Welsh Assembly subsidising what would be the increase this year would not cause the contract to be terminated earlier, because all that would happen is that the same money would be recouped from the Assembly or whoever wanted to pay it as would be recouped from tolls. Thus the length of time would be exactly the same. I will write to the hon. Gentleman—the lawyers are probably panicking as they listen to the debate—to clarify exactly what the legal position is. However, I am certain—this is what all the advice says—that if the company that was formed specifically for this purpose does not want to play ball, there is nothing that we can do.

Jessica Morden: While the Minister is on the issue of the contract, does what has been said equally apply to car sharing? Would it be equally difficult to resolve the issue of being able to swap between different cars in car-sharing schemes?

Mike Penning: I have asked for a note, but it has not arrived. It might do—hint, hint—in the time left. I cannot understand the difference, I must admit. Clearly, car sharing is going on. It happens on the routes that go from where I used to live in Essex into London. We commend car sharing. We want people to share cars,

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because it reduces emissions and makes travel much more cost-effective for people. I do not understand how the concession agreement would be affected in that respect, but I am sure that the lawyers will tell me why I am wrong—as always, I am being as honest as I can.

The hon. Member for Newport East made a couple of other points earlier. I have already touched on how price freezing and tolling would work. In the Select Committee evidence session, I talked about whether there is more technology that we can use to make things much easier for the communities on both sides of the border and for industry and at the same time to sweat the asset more, as we are doing with managed motorways. In other words, are we getting the best out of the bridge? Clearly, the toll process is causing delays.

We are committed to free-flow tolling at the Dartford river crossing. We made an announcement about that in the spending round, and I made an announcement about it to the Select Committee. There are real technical issues about using automatic number plate recognition, which is what we intend to use. It is similar to what the congestion charge scheme in London uses. There is an enforcement issue, particularly in relation to overseas vehicles. We intend to get that right at Dartford before we introduce the system. However, I can see no logical reason why it could not be introduced at the Severn river crossing.

The problem, of course, is the cost and who bears it. That is what the hon. Member for Pontypridd was alluding to. Let us be honest: why would the company set up in the context of the concession agreement to make this profit say to me, “Okay, Minister, we’ll spend X million pounds doing this for you,” rather than saying, “Will you pay for it?” or “We’ll use our rights to go further in the concessionary period.”

The truth is that by the time we fully implement ANPR and free-flow technology at Dartford, we will be into 2013, not least because of the construction work that needs to be done. Doing free-flow tolling sounds simple, but it is not. Otherwise, people would be hurtling through and we would have speed issues and so on. We will not be that far away from the conclusions about what will happen post the concession. I think that the negotiations will have to include what we would expect a modern tolling system to involve in the 21st century. The issue will arise once we have rolled out the system and done everything that we need to do at Dartford. The last thing that the Select Committee would want me to do is to say yes, we’ll definitely be able to roll it out in 2015 or ’16—in the latter part of this Parliament—if we have not got it running right. I am confident that we can do that, because the technology is there.

I think that we were all sceptical when the congestion charge was introduced in London. The issue was not the rights and wrongs of it, but whether it would work. It does work. The main issue is enforcement in relation to foreign-registered vehicles. I was with representatives of Transport for London only today, working out how we can deal with that.

Owen Smith: I want to clarify what the Minister has just said, because it was very interesting. Is he suggesting that some negotiations have taken place already between the Department for Transport and the company and that, subject to the technology being made failsafe at Dartford, an agreement might be struck whereby the

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Government would be prepared to compensate the company for introducing free-flow technology on the bridge before 2017? Is that what he was implying?

Mike Penning: No. That would be a spending commitment, and I do not have the authority in my lowly position to dream of ever giving one. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want to put words into my mouth, but the answer is no. The only way of funding that before 2017 would be through the concessionaire, and the discussion would be about whether it is willing to fund it under the existing contract—I doubt whether it would be. If we did not allow the company to increase the toll, it would look for an extension or—this is within the contract, and it would have every right to do so—to seek compensation from the Treasury. That, too, is unlikely.

By a miracle, a document has appeared before me. It says that SRC is prepared to negotiate extending the TAG scheme for car sharing. Naturally, however, it will not want to be financially worse off. That may not fully answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Newport East, but it is the best that I can do. I want to be as open as I can about this. I shall write to SRC saying what I was told during the debate and asking the company to clarify its position. I shall share that information with colleagues. It is only right and proper to do so.

I realise that I still have plenty of time, but I have no intention of filibustering—not least because Members wish to disappear. However, I have a speaking engagement in London this evening, so I am more than happy to continue.

In conclusion, I welcome the Committee’s report, and I shall work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government in analysing the economic effect of tolling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth rightly pointed out, there is little hard evidence that the bridges have had an economic effect. I do not say that they have not, but the Committee made extensive efforts to find evidence and did not, despite Chinese whispers among local communities. As I have said, the Welsh Assembly has publicised the fact that some 700 companies have located in the region over the past 40 years, long before the Welsh Assembly was formed, so something must be right. I believe that that evidence is shown on the Assembly website.

I realise that the crossing is a vital piece of national infrastructure. I am proud that my portfolio predominantly covers the whole of this great nation of ours. It is for me to work with and alongside the various devolved Assemblies and Parliaments. At the same time, however, I must ensure that they understand that it is a Department for Transport piece of infrastructure—a Westminster one—despite knowing how emotive it is to the local communities in Wales and those on the other side of the bridge in England.

I have listened carefully to the hauliers. I listen to them nearly every day, and they are an amazing group of people. Perhaps I think that because I hold an HGV licence and used to drive lorries when a fireman—like most firemen, I used to drive part-time when off duty.

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The key is fairness. If tolls continue beyond the existing agreement, and if free-flow tolling comes in, it would be wrong in my opinion that the tolls should remain one-way. That unfairness would have to be addressed if we had free-flow tolling and if the toll was increased. A number of truck drivers have told me that they go into Wales one way and come out the other because of the toll. Not only is the Treasury losing income, but it is another unfairness that needs to be addressed, although it is difficult to deal with it now, because of the way it is set up.

I hope that I have not delayed anyone’s journey home. Indeed, we will finish a fraction early. I hope that I have answered most questions, at least in general terms. I have been as honest as I can, as I was when giving evidence to the Select Committee. I pay tribute to the Committee on its conclusions, even if we do not fully agree on certain aspects. I was interested to note that all who are here today are Welsh MPs, yet the subject has a significant effect on the UK as a whole.

Geraint Davies: I wonder whether the Minister could signal in the most general terms whether he anticipates the direction of travel for the toll post-2017 to be significantly downwards. It would be interesting information for inward investors.

Mike Penning: As I have said, I do not intend delaying the Chamber. The answer is no. I cannot give an indication, and the hon. Gentleman can probably understand why.

On that point, I hand over to the Committee Chair. I hope that I have paid the report due credit.

5.15 pm

David T. C. Davies: I am grateful to the Minister, a fellow holder of an HGV licence, for giving me another 15 minutes to speak. As some of us wish to make fact-finding visits to the Severn bridge later today, I shall not use it all.

A bridge with a toll is better than no bridge. That is accepted. A bridge with a cashless payment system would be better still, and not one that takes only credit cards; the sort pioneered by companies such as Ringo—I have no connection with the company, but it gave evidence to the Committee—would be better still. A bridge with a reduced toll after 2017 would be excellent, and we look forward to improvements.

The Gwent national party, led by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), and I see eye to eye on many things, and we would have no difficulty in finding agreement on the Severn bridge, on the importance of the Union and on the importance of the first-past-the-post voting system—and, I suspect, on whether we hand further powers to the Welsh Assembly. That, however, is an argument for another day. We look forward to improvements after 2017.

Question put and agreed to.

5.16 pm

Sitting adjourned.